We've all heard the refrain that Rafael Nadal's down-the-line forehand is the biggest barometer of his confidence. You know he is feeling good about his game when he is blasting those curling missiles that leave even the quickest retrievers flat-footed.
But is the potency of his down-the-line forehand the effect of his confidence, or the cause of it? Most would say it is the former, but at the Rome Masters this week it may have been the reverse.
When Nadal took the court for his semi-final match against Stefanos Tsitsipas, the dark clouds hanging over his claycourt form hadn't completely dissipated. Sure he had handed out a bagel in each of his first three matches of the tournament, but the opponents he had faced " Jeremy Chardy, Nikoloz Basilasvhili and a fatigued Fernando Verdasco " hadn't really pushed the World No 2 to bring out his best tennis.
- ATP Tour (@ATP_Tour) May 19, 2019
Tsitsipas, however, promised to be a different proposition. The Greek had defeated Nadal just a week earlier, at this exact same stage in Madrid and everyone knew that the Spaniard wouldn't be able to sleepwalk through this match.
And they were right; Nadal couldn't sleepwalk through it. But what he did instead may have been even better: he rediscovered the timing and precision on his most deadly weapon. Tsitsipas was frequently reduced to a spectator as Nadal's down-the-line forehand thudded across the clay; whether he came to the net or engaged in rallies from the back of the court, the youngster just had no counter to the shot.
That Tsitsipas still made the match fairly competitive could only mean one thing: Nadal wasn't yet at his most devastating claycourt level. But he knew now that his down-the-line forehand was well and truly back and sometimes that knowledge is all that he needs.
Even if he is playing Novak Djokovic himself.
The World No 1 looked a little weary right from the start of the final, presumably feeling the effects of his marathon matches against Juan Martin del Potro and Diego Schwartzman in the previous two rounds. He seemed unwilling to get into too many long rallies and kept going to the drop shot well despite getting constantly burned by the tactic. But that had little bearing on what Nadal was doing on the other side of the net.
The Spaniard began pummeling down-the-line forehand winners as early as the second game of the match; the timing on the shot had clearly carried over from the match against Tsitsipas. That allowed him to uncork the rest of his game too and by the middle of the first set, he had established control over the match with a combination of impregnable defence and clever manoeuvring of the ball.
For Nadal, this week in Rome was about returning to his natural instincts. While he had shown off a brand new attacking game (with a brand new service motion too) at the Australian Open which was perfectly suitable for hardcourts, he spent the next three months alternating between an offensive and a defensive approach that left him confused and title-less. That uncertainty seemed to fade away with each passing match this week and by the end of it, he was back to his trusted claycourt patterns " patterns so lethal that they produced the first bagel in the history of his rivalry with Djokovic.
It wasn't just that Nadal defended a lot in the final against Djokovic; it was that he defended with his brilliance of old. He kept asking counter-questions to Djokovic's questions, repeatedly forcing him to hit one extra shot from an uncomfortable position. And on a day when the World No 1 wasn't feeling the ball too well, that was almost guaranteed to elicit errors.
Can you find the part of the court they didn't cover in this rally? We can't! ï¸ï¸
- ATP Tour (@ATP_Tour) May 19, 2019
When Djokovic engaged him in backhand-to-forehand rallies, Nadal refused to panic and instead kept angling the ball wider and wider until it got too tough to handle for the Serb. When Djokovic tried changing things up by hitting a down-the-line backhand, Nadal was always there, ready to crunch a crosscourt backhand and open up space in the court. And of course, when Djokovic threatened to go up into the court, Nadal promptly unleashed his patented down-the-line forehand screamer.
This was Nadal fully in his comfort zone, playing a match on his own terms against the world's best player. He never went for too much with his groundstrokes and always looked totally in control of his game. Even his serve resembled the old motion more than the Australian Open one; it had less pace than it did in Melbourne, but greater accuracy and point-starting efficiency.
It was a week full of positives for Nadal, except for one jarring misstep. Mid-way through the second set it had started seeming like a matter of time before the Spaniard sewed up a straight sets win, but he made routine errors on the break points he had at 3-3 and 4-4. Then when the time came for him to serve to stay in the set, he made two ghastly forehand errors that put him 0-30 down, and finally pushed a tentative forehand that sailed wide " conceding a set he really had no business losing.
Has Djokovic established a permanent residence in Nadal's head? The one-sided nature of the Australian Open final and the general ascendancy that the Serb has enjoyed in the rivalry over the past five years are bound to weigh on anyone's mind. And if Nadal lets the ghosts of the past spook him out at the wrong time during the French Open, he could end up paying a bigger price than just one lost set; Djokovic is unlikely to be fatigued and error-prone in Paris the way he was in Rome.
Still, the fact that Nadal put that mini-collapse behind him and resumed his clean, patient tennis in the third set bodes well for his immediate future. All through this claycourt season, we have wondered what's been ailing Nadal and when he'd lift his first trophy of the year. He has given us all the answers in Rome, by going back to his roots and enduring the sternest test of all " a good old-fashioned battle against his biggest nemesis " with his reputation enhanced rather than diminished.
It is may be time to start being bullish about Nadal's Parisian prospects again. That down-the-line forehand isn't going anywhere any time soon and we know what that means: more confidence for Nadal and more misery for his opponents.