Debate: is Nadal invincible?
Reigning champion staves off four set points to wrap up rain-affected win over Italian lucky loser.
Even winning just a single set off Rafael Nadal at Roland-Garros must feel like tennis’s equivalent of climbing Everest in a pair of sneakers.
Simone Bolelli discovered this the brutally hard way on Tuesday when he played some of the tennis of his life – chucking everything but the kitchen sink at the 10-time champion – and held four set points in a bid to delay the inevitable, yet still found himself failing to dent the great man’s aura.
No player has taken a set off Nadal at Roland-Garros since Novak Djokovic beat him three years ago – it’s now 25 straight completed sets and counting here – but, my goodness, Bolelli came gloriously close and not a soul on Court Philippe-Chatrier would have begrudged him his moment after nearly three hours of splendid duelling in both sun and rain.
Yet after all the magnificent resistance he demonstrated in Nadal’s 6-4 6-3 7-6(9) victory in their resumed first-round clash, perhaps the Italian world No.129’s real service to the rest of the men’s field was to offer them the blueprint of how to tackle this seemingly-invincible monarch in his own realm.
This is it, in essence. You take courage into your own hands, show no fear, risk everything, go for every half-chance and, if you attack, attack and attack again, get him on the back foot, find more lines than you miss, then you can actually rattle Nadal. Er, a bit. Easier said than done, naturally.
Nadal was honest enough to concede that this is the sort of game that truly discomfits him. “He played so aggressive and very well. I resisted but it’s always difficult to play against players who want to hit every ball so hard,” he said in praise of Bolelli.
“He was having success with all of the risk that he takes. I have to play more aggressive, I know, but it was difficult against a player who decided to play that strong. It was difficult to find 100 per cent the rhythm.”
This was a complete different, wholly energised Bolelli, not the bloke who had already been knocked out of the event so tamely last Friday, feeling a bit poorly and getting smashed 6-0 6-2 in the qualifiers by Santiago Giraldo. “I don’t know how,” marvelled Nadal, unaware of the Italian’s illness.
This Bolelli was a born-again cavalier, a 32-year-old saying ‘what the hell’ and flashing forehands with abandon, leaping deep into the court to attack Nadal’s second serve with his rapier-like single-handed backhand.
The Italian had held a 3-0 lead in the third set when persistent rain forced a halt on Monday and it looked on the resumption as if he had lost his mojo as Nadal quickly wiped out his advantage.
Yet Bolelli just wouldn’t lie down. He earned three more break points at 4-3, forcing some of the best tennis out of Nadal, and when he took the set to 6-6 with the underdog-cheering crowd already demanding “we want a fourth set!”, it prompted a quite breathtaking tiebreak which actually served to demonstrate Nadal’s greatness.
For Bolelli was magnificent; he produced a flashing backhand winner, a couple of exquisite drop shots, a beautiful stop volley and repelled two match points fearlessly.
Four times he was on the brink of taking the set; yet four times, Nadal answered dazzlingly, a fantastic inside-out forehand saving one of those set points, followed by a fist-pump that suggested ‘don’t you dare try this in my kingdom.’
Nadal beats Bolelli but commend the loser on the go-for-broke strategy. You’re not going the Out-rally Nadal so may as well try something unconventional ....— Jon Wertheim (@jon_wertheim) May 29, 2018
Ultimately, as he has done so often, he finally broke Bolelli’s spirit and patience as the Italian clobbered a slightly weary forehand into the net.
How does he do it? Isn’t there ever a danger of him becoming complacent? “Not gonna happen,” Nadal said, sounding almost insulted. “And there is a proof that that's never happened, that I won 10 times here, 11 Monte-Carlo, 11 Barcelona, eight Romes.
“I was able to do all this result because I respect the sport, I respect every opponent, and I respect the competition every day. That's the reason I have success, because I go every day on court knowing that I can win, that I can lose, and that's the sport. So anything can happen.”
Too true. But in Nadal’s case, what usually happens is that he just refuses to be beaten.