Let’s focus on the word “control”.
Meaning = the power to influence or direct people’s behavior or the course of events.
This is exactly what happens when Rafael Nadal is in full flight on a clay court. He controls both sides of the court. His wicked forehand and rock-solid backhand heavily influence the flow of baseline traffic. He dictates where balls are hit. Opponents are just along for the ride.
Rafa lost 6-2, 4-6, 6-2 to Andrey Rublev in the quarter-finals of the Rolex Monte Carlo Masters on Friday. Rublev played an excellent match, and Rafa did not. Why?
Because Rafa lost control.
It must have been such a foreign feeling for the “King of Clay” to be on his favorite surface at a tournament he has won 11 times and be dictated to. Rublev was the boss on the court in this match. Rafa was the one hanging on for dear life.
Rublev Broke Rafa’s Backhand
Rublev unleashed a torrent of groundstroke fury directed at Rafa’s backhand. The following Hawk-Eye graphic clearly shows Rublev’s intent to bring the battering ram against Rafa’s backhand.
Hawk-Eye Graphic: Rublev Groundstroke Direction
This is a key pattern of Rublev’s game. Pound the opponent’s backhand into submission. Only Alejandro Davidovich-Fokina hit more (65%) wide to his opponent’s backhand in his victory over Matteo Berrettini. There were only six times to the semi-finals where a player hit 60%+ shots wide to the opponent’s backhand. Rublev owned three of them.
Highest Percentage To Wide 1/3 Of the Court To The Opponent’s Backhand
- Davidovich-Fokina = 65% vs. Berrettini.
- Rublev = 62% vs. Nadal
- Lajovic = 61% v Evans
- Rublev = 60% vs. Bautista Agut
- Rublev = 60% vs. Caruso
- Cilic = 60% vs. Goffin
Rublev’s baseline strategy is the relentless pursuit of his opponent’s backhand. The average for the tournament hitting to the outer third of the court to the opponent’s backhand side is 51%. Rublev is running at 61%. Most opponents have a healthy interest in attacking the opponent’s backhand. Rublev is obsessed.
This is what Nadal said post-match about his backhand.
“The only thing that I can do is go to Barcelona and keep practicing, keep practicing, try to fix the things that didn’t work well. I think my backhand today was not [good] enough. Lots of mistakes. I was not able to open the court with my backhand then,” Nadal said.
You can’t open the court if you don’t control the point.
The gold standard on a clay court is Rafa’s forehand. It’s the most dominant shot on the court.
First two rounds vs. Federico Delbonis & Grigor Dimitrov Combined
- Nadal Forehands Hit = 63% (180)
- Nadal Backhands Hit = 37% (108)
And then along came Rublev. Check out these numbers!
Nadal v Rublev
- Nadal Forehands Hit = 46% (187)
- Nadal Backhands Hit = 54% (217)
- Rublev Forehands Hit = 63% (262)
- Rublev Backhands Hit = 37% (154)
These numbers are simply devastating for Rafa. The task is impossible if Rublev is crushing 63% forehands and Rafa only hits 46% forehands. That hill is simply too big to climb.
A huge part of this final result is that Rublev put Rafa’s forehand to sleep. Rublev made it a secondary storyline to this match. Rublev also hit his forehand from a better position on the court.
Rublev Forehand Hit-Point
- Inside Baseline = 24%
- Behind Baseline (within 2m) = 66%
- Behind Baseline (Past 2m) = 10%
Nadal Forehand Hit-Point
- Inside Baseline = 21%
- Behind Baseline (within 2m) = 50%
- Behind Baseline (Past 2m) = 29%
Rublev only hit 10% of his forehands from deep in the court – deeper than two metres behind the baseline. Rafa hit 29% from back there. It’s so tough to hurt your opponent from back there. Hard to get it deep on the other side of the court to push the opponent back. Hard to find an angle to pull the opponent wide off the court. Another small battle won by Rublev.
Nadal’s Seven Double Faults
Rafa committed five double faults in the opening set and seven overall.
“For some reason, I had problems with my serve. I don’t understand why, because I was not having problems in the practices at all. But today was one of those days that my serve was a disaster,” Nadal said.
“Serving like this, the serve creates an impact on the rest of the game. When you serve with no confidence, you are just focusing on trying to serve, not thinking about how you want to [hit] the ball. You just think about what you have to do with the serve to put the ball in.
It’s true that Rafa’s serve woes had an impact on his backhand. Instead of trying to figure out the nuances of baseline strategy and how to stop the avalanche that was coming to his backhand, he was distracted with trying to figure out how to hit a second serve in the court.
RUBLEV’S MENTAL STRENGTH
Rublev led 6-2, 3-1, and had break points to go up a double break. It was an inflection point as Rafa rebounded and won five of the next six games to draw level at a set all.
“I would say this week I am controlling my emotions [really well]. At the end that’s the key,” Rublev said. “If after the second set I would say something or if I would show emotions, for sure the third set will be over, [it] will be 6-2 for him. So I’m happy that I could handle it.”
If Rublev opened his mouth after set two I agree with him. Rafa would have pounced. Rafa would have smelt blood from a wounded opponent and ran away with the third set.
But Rublev didn’t say a word. Didn’t look sideways. Didn’t blink. That’s maturity. He did not turn the sword on himself and quickly found himself up a break in the third set.
In many ways, Rafa got a dose of his own medicine in this match. Usually, he is the guy hitting more forehands. Usually, he is the guy unleashing his fury onto the opponent’s backhand and forcing their serve to self-destruct. Usually, he is the guy that doesn’t blink.
Rublev was brilliant. Rafa was not, and Rublev gets a lot of credit for that.