Herman Mostert

Djokovic can spoil Nadal’s party

2013-05-22 09:33
Sport24 columnist Herman Mostert (File)
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Federer vs Fly

2013-05-20 15:29

Watch this hilarious advert starring tennis ace Roger Federer.

After Rafael Nadal's crushing win over Roger Federer in the final of the Rome Masters, I believe only one man can stop him from winning an eighth Roland Garros title in little more than a fortnight's time.

Nadal’s return to the ATP Tour after a seven-month layoff has been nothing short of remarkable. The 26-year-old Spaniard has won six tournaments since returning in February after missing the second part of 2012 due to a knee injury.

His 6-1, 6-3 thrashing of Federer was significant, as it proved he’s over the knee trouble which left a big question mark over his career.

Nadal had gone into that final on the back of a heavy schedule, having played four tournaments in a row dating back to Monte Carlo in mid-April. Federer, on the other hand, had only played one - the previous week in Madrid - where he unexpectedly lost early to Japan’s Kei Nishikori.

After that loss, Federer vowed to hit the practice courts hard - a strategy which seemed to pay off as he looked back to his old self in Rome, romping through his first two matches for the loss of only six games. His potentially shaky backhand looked solid, with the fluidity back in his shots.

Nadal, meanwhile, had a tough run in, almost bowing out in his second match after losing the first set 6-1 to Latvian Ernests Gulbis. He also looked shaky at times against compatriot David Ferrer in the quarter-finals, but nevertheless reached his eighth final this year.

But despite Nadal being my pick to win, I gave Federer a slight chance, especially due to the fact that he went into the match refreshed and had played enough tennis in the two weeks prior to that.

And at 31, going into a big game refreshed is essential for the Swiss maestro, who has always been a player that can “switch on” when the occasion requires. And for that reason, and the fact that Nadal had played for four weeks straight, I gave Federer a chance.

But what transpired was painful to watch for Federer followers. His backhand broke down and this led to him over-pressing on the forehand, which resulted in more errors.

Federer’s single-handed backhand has at the best of times struggled against the Nadal forehand, and with the Spaniard being a lefty, it means his strength plays right into the weakness of Federer.

Nadal predominantly serves to the Federer backhand, and with it being a single-handed shot, he often only chips the ball back, which allows Nadal to step in and dominate.

The recipe is simple for Nadal: Hit as many forehands cross-court with ferocious topspin into the Federer weakness.

Federer, on the other hand, also tries to dominate with his forehand, but on the clay he simply can’t hit through Nadal as would be possible on other surfaces.

He tried different tactics by serve-and-volleying 30% of the time, but that will always backfire against a returner like Nadal on clay.

The two have now played 15 times on the dirt, with Federer only winning twice - back in 2009 and 2007. So in my book, if they were to play at Roland Garros, there will only be one winner.

Although Federer still has a shot against Nadal on grass and hard courts, for him to win Roland Garros this year, Nadal would have to slip up.

But what about the other members of the “Big 4” - Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray? I mention the Big 4 because I believe the winner of the year’s four Grand Slams will only come from this elite group.

Yes there are wannabe challengers like Ferrer, Tomas Berdych, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Juan Martin Del Potro and the multi-talented 21-year-old Grigor Dimitrov (who I tip as a future Grand Slam winner) - who can cause an upset - but it’s unlikely to happen this year.

Murray on Monday pulled out of the French Open due to a back injury, but he’s not nearly as big a threat on clay as he is on other surfaces. The Scot struggles to move on his least favoured surface and his clay record in 2013 reads a dismal three wins with as many losses.

So with Federer and Murray out the reckoning, Djokovic remains Nadal’s only threat - but a very big threat in my book!

Since his breakthrough season in 2011 - when he won three major titles and beat Nadal in six finals - he has established himself as the world’s best.

Despite trailing Nadal 19-15 head-to-head, Djokovic has won eight of their last 11 meetings. He did lose to Nadal three times in a row on clay last year, but one match from 2013 stands out: The Monte Carlo final four weeks ago.

There Djokovic ended Nadal’s eight-year stranglehold on the tournament with a clinical straight sets win.

And it was the manner in which he did it - by nullifying the Nadal strength - and doing it on clay.

Djokovic has a rock solid double-handed backhand, and where Nadal is able to hurt the single-handed Federer, he’s unable to do the same to the Serb. Instead, Djokovic has the ability to turn defence into attack - largely due to him having both hands on the racquet and an incredible elasticity which allows him to stretch and slide to almost any ball. 

So with Nadal accustomed to ripping his forehand cross-court into the right-hander’s backhand wing, against Djokovic it comes back with interest, which puts Nadal on the back foot.

Djokovic also moves better than all the other top players on clay and together with an improved mental state means he’s able to hang with Nadal. He’s not afraid of facing Nadal and believes his best will topple the Spaniard’s best on any surface.

Since Monte Carlo Djokovic has slipped up twice though - losing to Dimitrov in Madrid and uncharacteristically falling to Berdych in Rome after he led 6-2, 5-2. However, I do believe he has his sights set on Paris and should he make the final, I believe he can topple Nadal and triumph for the first time there.

Nadal will be ranked at No 3 though, which means the two could meet in the semi-finals.

Either way, I know Nadal will be there come the final weekend of Roland Garros, so the question remains, will Djokovic be? If he is then I think Nadal will be a worried man...

Herman Mostert works at Sport24 - and fancies himself as a bit of a tennis player and soccer writer...

Disclaimer: Sport24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on Sport24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Sport24.

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