When you are not against a clock, you can always repeat the famous Yogi Berra line about never saying die, and tennis is a case in point, with illustrations of the adage almost as thrilling as ninth- or extra-inning rallies in baseball.
There is the astonishing case, saved for posterity thanks to Rod Laver’s tennis writings, about the French Open match wherein victory was sprung from the depths of a two set deficit and 0-5 in the third. This was such a long time ago that no one remembers the protagonists in this extreme mental drama — because what was it but a case of irrational exuberance against despondency beyond analysis — but we remember the story, because Laver told it.
Nothing quite so extreme usually happens, but there are, notably in grand slam events, regularly cases of losing the first two sets and then coming back. In the three set format, such as is played in Masters 1000 events like the Mutua de Madrid, you have to come back strong or strong enough in the second and then dig in. Madrid this year was a good tournament, even from afar, and produced many excellent matches and some fine runs. Two of these ended up short in the finals. The young Romanian Simona Halep, at 22 already No. 5 on the WTA charts, dominated Ana Ivanovic in the quarters and beat Petra Kvitova in the semis, the latter after losing the first set.
Kei Nishikori had a great run too, with a close victory over Milos Raonic and a bruising one over David Ferrer in the semis that went to three sets and several exceedingly long points even for a clay match. It appear it was in this match that Nishikori, who is 24 and has a history of injuries, sprained something in his lower back that acted up at the worst possible moment in the final.
Rafael Nadal made it to the final so easily, without losing a set, that observers were busy assuring one another that after the lousy performances at Monte Carlo and Barcelona, tournaments where the man of Majorca has prevailed most years he has played in them, the “king of clay” was back in form and was now going to show us how he would triumph, once again, on “the road to Paris,” where the French Open consecrates the clay season.
Kei Nishikori so completely dominated the first set (6-1) that it seemed likely it was one of the Rafa-slow-start-days that he comes up with fairly often. When Kei served at 4-3 in the second, however, it was not a slow-start day at all, it looked rather like a fast-exit day.
At 24, Nishikori, who is ranked in the top ten, is a product, technically, of the Florida academies (IMG, Bollitierri) that have been producing top players for some years now but not many champions among champions. That, at least, is the considered view of tennis expert Nate Harvey, a Washington, D.C. commentator on the sport who blames the academies for a “cookie-cutter” generation of pros. They all play the same game, he says, and they are predicable as the weather in Florida, and for the very top players, like Nadal or Federer, they are for this very reason easy to beat. Notwithstanding that Nishikori beat Federer earlier this season and came very close to beating Nadal yesterday, it may at least be said that the verdict is still out on how successful these high powered tennis schools are going to be as the current masters inevitably begin to pass their batons.
Nadal certainly looked like he was passing it until the middle of he second set. The Rafa of yore, who had been nowhere in sight for half the match, suddenly emerged. He broke Kei for the first time, held his serve at love, and broke again for the set. It was then, however, that it became obvious something was wrong.
Nishikori took a medical time out and hobbled to the court for the third set and could not hit anything. At 3-0, Nadal, he conceded, explaining afterwards that his back was killing him and it was sending pain through his legs. The dejection on Nadal’s face could not be hidden; a win that should have reassured him, leave aside his admirers, that he really was back, was spoiled by a default, and even if he did show much better form in the second set than in the first, even his coach, his uncle Toni Nadal, stated that Nishikori had been playing better, with his deep strong forehands and his consistent defensive backhands.
Maria Sharapova had a smoother semi, beating Agnieszka Radwanska in two, but she earned her place there with a three-set battle against Li Na in the quarters in which she was smothered in the first set and eked out a tie break in the second before cruising through the third. But Simona Halep was on a roll, and she was still rolling in the first two sets of their spirited final.
The Florida Ice Queen — born in Siberia — could do nothing right in the first set, and the young Romanian took full advantage, smothering her 6-1. But Maria came back roaring in the second, 6-2, and with her speed and reach (long legs) and the never-quit ethos of which champions are made, she took charge and closed the match out without major scares.
Say what you will about Nadal’s sixth Madrid trophy, his performance this past week, like Miss Sharapova’s, is no small reminder of the need for the will to win in this highly mental sport. It is a truism; it remains a fact. It is disappointing to lose on a forfeit, but it is by no means a phony win. Virtually no players are always, or even ever, at the proverbial 110 percent, and almost certainly not even at 100 percent. Nadal stuck it out; if he had caved in that second set, Nishikori would have handled his pain, one may guess. But with Nadal toughing it out and bringing on his famous Vamos! form, the young sports samurai may have felt the pain was not worth it.
Young players like the Madrid finalists already show they have it; experience will give them the key to toughing out the physically, as well as mentally, difficult ends of tournaments.