MELBOURNE—Here in Australia, it was time for the tournament to head downhill. On a muggy Sunday afternoon, the temperatures at Melbourne Park were in the 80s—still far more temperate than the triple digits of Thursday and Friday—the roll towards week two was underway. Quarterfinal berths were at stake.
But for Rafael Nadal, the path usually goes uphill. Today it took four sets and nearly four hours for Nadal to subdue 24th-seeded Diego Schwartzman, 6-3, 6-7 (4), 6-3, 6-3.
“You can't expect easy matches when you're playing in big tournaments,” said Nadal.
There’s an interesting aspect to Nadal’s approach to competition. Were the likes of Roger Federer or Grigor Dimitrov to be so extended by a player they’d never lost a set to in three prior matches (as was the case for Nadal with Schwartzman), the encounter would exist on parallel tracks—the historical leader-favorite trying to impose with brilliance, the plucky underdog seeking to counter and strike. Oppose Federer or Dimitrov and you enter a playground, a sandbox of sorts where two people strike balls, at some level even impersonally.
But versus Nadal, the court is a combat zone.
“Everybody suffers in four-hours’ match,” said Nadal.
Everybody. Years from now, Schwartzman’s grandchildren will ask him if he played Nadal. And he will gently issue a correction. No, he will say. I battled Nadal.
It was captivating. If there was zero chance in any quest to out-steady the impregnable Nadal, then Schwartzman’s only other option was to invest in the one-percent possibility and seek to take charge of points as quickly as possible. Schwartzman won the majority of rallies that lasted four shots or less (86 to 78)—darn good for a four-set loss. But he also played his share of patient points, many times seeking to extend rallies before looking to strike big.
It didn’t matter that the 5’7, 141-pound Schwartzman stood six inches shorter and weighed 47 pounds less than Nadal. What counted was that the Argentine threw himself at the ball off both sides, striking eloquently with down-the-line backhands and a smattering of forehands smacked to all areas of the court in every which way.
“He played well, and he played aggressive," said Naadal. "Yep, he did a lot of things well.”
Never was Schwartzman’s tenacity more vividly demonstrated than in the second set. On three occasions, Nadal went up a break, keen to crack the match open. Each time, Schwartzman broke back. As the two worked their way through one grinding rally after another and into a tiebreaker, it was fun to imagine Nadal’s thoughts: I knew David Ferrer. David Ferrer was a friend of mine. And let me tell you, Mr. Schwartzman, you’re no David Ferrer. Hey, wait a second. Maybe you are.
It had taken 80 minutes to play the second set, which Schwartzman won in a tiebreaker. Notably, he hadn’t done so with a grand display of winners, but by digging into the points so hard that Nadal, 4-5 down in the tiebreaker, shanked a forehand long on one point and drove a backhand long on the next. After two hours and five minutes, it was a set all, both players effectively starting over in a best of three.
And so Nadal entered his brand of the zone. After hitting 30 winners in the first two sets—19 in the second—Schwartzman came up against the Rafa Retrieval Machine; that is, Nadal’s distinct, oppressive mix of court coverage and blizzard-like offense. Nadal’s winner count in the first two sets: 15, including a measly four in the first set. Over the last two sets he more than doubled that tally to 31. Kill or be killed.
But while there have been many occasions when Nadal has cracked a match open—most frequently, of course, on his beloved clay—that wasn’t about to happen versus Schwartzman. The swift hard court, the muggy conditions, and most of all, Schwartman’s pitbull-like qualities, kept it tight, suspenseful, relentlessly entertaining. Schwartzman unquestionably had learned from such scrappers as Ferrer. Come to think of it, isn’t Nadal in many ways a heavyweight version of that kind of player?
“Was a good test,” said Nadal. “But being honest, too, moments like this helps to be more confident in yourself, in your body.” This was the conundrum Schwartzman faced.
As Schwartzman said, “trying to do winners every point, is not easy to be focused four hours against him.”
In just about every Nadal match, the notion of shot-making vanishes. Ye who so seek, abandon hope. Instead, the terms with which Nadal dictates revolve around matters of the soul, heart, footwork; a game built less from air and more from dirt.
A year ago here, Nadal was ranked ninth in the world. Always one to underplay his chances, Nadal likely then wasn’t thinking about such things as becoming No. 1 again, winning more Grand Slams or anything other than when he was next going to suffer.
Now he is No. 1 in the world, Tuesday set to take on Marin Cilic—a player he’s beaten five out of six times. But the warrior mentality remains. After today’s match, Nadal admitted he must step up his aggression. Time for more suffering. Nadal knows no other way.
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