New-look Nadal wants throne back

Spaniard’s Montreal victory proves determination to reinvent his game

Nadal in Montreal with trophy number eight in 2013.
Nadal in Montreal with trophy number eight in 2013.christinne muschi (REUTERS)

The partisan Canadian crowd was dumbstruck. The same voices that had roared all week as young Milos Raonic engineered his ascent to tennis’s top 10 fell silent as Rafa Nadal emphatically underlined his own return to the peak of the men’s game.

After Sunday’s 6-2, 6-2 destruction of the home favorite to take the Montreal Masters 1000 title, Nadal overtakes compatriot David Ferrer to move up to number three in the new ATP rankings. But with an impressive eight titles under his belt since returning from a serious knee injury in February, the 27-year-old is aiming to reach the number-one spot for the third time in a career that is taking on increasingly epic hues.

Asked after winning the Rogers Cup for the third time whether he felt he was on the way back to the summit, occupied since last November by Novak Djokovic, Nadal said: “I feel I have an advantage, but not enough to say that I am the favorite.

“On this kind of surface Novak is really good. There remain three Masters 1000s, one grand slam, [the] World Tour Finals — more favorable surfaces for him than for me,” the eight-time French Open winner noted, although his victory over the Serbian in Saturday’s Montreal semifinals suggests the playing field may be more even than he cares to admit.

I feel I have an advantage, but not enough to say that I am the favorite”

Nadal, who played in Canada without his customary tape on his left knee, is now 10-0 on hard courts this season after also winning the Indian Wells Masters in March. Against Djokovic, he clearly had a game plan, standing up to the baseline where possible and keeping depth and power on his strokes, particularly focusing on the number one’s forehand side. This was a significant change in the Spaniard’s approach, as he has tended to work more on his opponents’ backhands, taking advantage of his own condition as a left-hander. Just ask Roger Federer.

When Nadal raced to an unassailable 6-0 lead in the decisive third-set tiebreak against Djokovic, it was not simply aggression that had taken him to the brink of a first hard-court win over the Serbian for three years, but rather a carefully executed plan to vary the speed and trajectory of the ball as it headed to his forehand side. Djokovic then blazed two winners past the Spaniard. But it was too late even for heroics, Nadal wrapping up the decider 7-2.

During the match, Djokovic made 47 errors with his forehand, according to ATP statistics (12 on service return and 35 in rallies), with six coming in that crucial tiebreak.

“I took the right decisions at the big moments,” Nadal explained. “I tried to play very close to the baseline and step further up the court whenever I had the chance. Both of us tried to control the match from the baseline. We pushed each other to the limit.”

Nadal, who has now beaten Djokovic five times in their last six meetings, seems to have found a new equilibrium to make another push toward supremacy by playing more aggressively. He has said previously that he can no longer rely on his defensive abilities if he wants his knees to keep going for several more years. In Montreal against the Serbian, Nadal made 36 unforced errors — a lot for the meticulous Mallorcan in just three sets. But Djokovic made more (44) and that was the difference.

Djokovic, the number one, will still travel to Cincinnati this week and the US Open (from August 26) as favorite. But Montreal made one thing clear: he has one rival who is prepared to reinvent his game to steal his throne.

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