Thursday, September 10, 2009

Rafa's Pain Machine is Switched on Again

Tuesday nights highly physical and thoroughly entertaining 4th-round match between Rafa Nadal and Gael Monfils served to remind tennis fans of what kind of indomitable phenom Rafa can be when he is in top form.

Looking more dialed-in and revved-up than he has in the month since his return, Rafa dished out several heaping portions of pain in the form of punishing ground strokes and world-class service returns last night to a Gael Monfils who seemed, for a brief period at least, bent on running toe-to-toe with Nadal.

That might have been a realistic endeavor two to four weeks ago, but last night it was a task more suited for Hercules than a mere mortal who is happier on clay than on the blistering fast hard courts at the Billie Jean USTA National Tennis Center.

After a first set that had to be the most entertaining and also grueling set of the men’s tournament to date, Monfils looked like he had been through a war. Nadal, meanwhile, looked like he was lusting for one that was just about to begin.

The second set was the beginning of the end for Monfils. It was here where Nadal switched up the intensity, and it was here where Monfils started to appear as if he was in way over his head. Credit Monfils for his brave attempt to stay relevant in this match - he didn’t go away, but Rafa emerged in such a way as to make the flashy Frenchman seem ill-equipped to go the distance. At times the crowd tried to will the charismatic Monfils back into the match, and at other times Monfils tried to pump himself up for big games and big points, but the theme of the match always remained intact. The harder Monfils played, the more resistance he would feel from the pain machine.

For the first time since his return, Nadal was absolutely deadly with his ground strokes, patiently alternating between his inside-out and cross-court forehands, which served to keep the agile Monfils on a perpetual treadmill, and eventually fatigued him so much that later in the match he was forced to go for winners before he really had a good shot at the point.

It was such a decisive display of physical and mental prowess that it is now is quite easy to envision Rafa inflicting his personal form of torture on the rest of the men’s field.

It wasn't so easy two weeks ago. After erratic performances and less-than-average serving did Nadal in at Masters events in Montreal and Cincinnati, where he lost in the quarters to Del Potro and in the semis to Djokovic respectively, it was hard to imagine him being a legitimate threat for the title in New York.

But Tuesday nights dominating performance changes all that.

The feel that he was desperately searching for (and not quite finding) before the open started has returned in the last few matches. The slice is biting. He’s timing the ball on the run. The volleys are finding the open court again, and after last night it is painfully (sense a theme developing here?) obvious that Nadal is still the most fit man in the draw, regardless of his injury status.

While his greatest challenges most certainly lie in wait for him, Nadal’s form last night on Arthur Ashe says a lot about how he’ll handle them. Win or lose, I predict pain for his opponents.

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