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Rafa Was At His Best Against Stan

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Rafael Nadal (zimbio.com)

How does Rafa Nadal maintain his concentration on his serve when perspiration is constantly dropping from his nose onto the red clay?
Obviously, the sweat just makes the red clay more to Nadal’s liking.
Rafa has never played better than he did Sunday at Roland Garros. He was nearly perfect.
And don’t blame Rafa’s excellence on an “old” Stan Wawrinka. Rafa was simply terrific.

RAFA SIMPLY DUG DEEPER

Every time Wawrinka tried to make a match of the French Open final, Nadal simply dug one step deeper.

Rafa played like a kid. He made more spectacular gets and shots than ever, even when he was a 19-year-old kid winning that first of his record 10 French Open titles in 2005.

As the final point played out in his 6-2, 6-3, 6-1 conquest of Wawrinka, Nadal made his signature slide and fall on his back on the red clay. He didn’t drop a set in this French Open. He yielded a total of just 35 games in his seven matches.

Yes, and now he’s headed to London. At a time when some of the other members of the “Elite Five 30s”  players, indeed, are looking a little old, Nadal has as good a chance as anyone to win Wimbledon. Even Roger Federer, who is creeping up on age 36 and is the oldest of the “Elite Five 30s” gang but certainly not looking old in the manner of Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.

NADAL’S EXUBERANCE TOOK TOLL ON STAN

Wawrinka only looked old because of Nadal’s exuberance. But Stan the Man simply could not hurt Rafa on this day, no matter how hard or what the Swiss tried.

Nadal was everywhere. He hit winners around the net posts. He made impossible gets, then came right back with extraordinary winners on his next strokes.

With the exception of a few points, Nadal rendered Wawrinka’s power harmless. That doesn’t happen often to a player who has rivaled the best in the game the last couple of years.

Going into this final, Wawrinka was considered by many to be the most dangerous player in the game. And he may be at Wimbledon.

But not on Rafa’s court.

WAWRINKA’S ONE-HANDED BACKHAND NEUTRALIZED

Nadal took Wawrinka’s marvelous one-handed backhand out of play. That may have been one of the real keys to Rafa’s 15th Grand Slam title.

He pulled Wawrinka so wide on the forehand side that Stan couldn’t find his own backhand. Stan ran down most of the wide ones, but by the third straight ball off the court Wawrinka was ready to surrender the point as his forehands sailed over the baseline.

Nadal took Wawrinka’s shots unusually early, keeping his opponent off balance and out of rhythm. Nadal returns on Wawrinka’s shots came back like ping-pong balls, hitting the angles before Stan could react.

NADAL PUNCTUATED HIS SHOTS

At times early in the match when he was creating his dominance, Nadal chose to out-backhand Stan, going side-to-side with forehands and backhands in textbook tennis, always a step ahead of his opponent, making Wawrinka keep his weapons holstered.

All the while, Nadal was punctuating his shots. He did it from start to finish, never after the first four games giving Stan a chance to think he was in the match.

It was a performance of the ages, Stan 32 and Rafa 31. And now it’s off to London where Federer awaits.

Where are all of the young guns? Talented over-hitter Dominic Thiem may show up again at some point once he learns how to play the real game when it counts. Then again, the grass of Wimbledon may still belong to the old guys.

James Beck is the long-time tennis columnist for the Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier newspaper. He can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com. See his Post and Courier columns at http://www.postandcourier.com/search/?l=25&sd=desc&s=start_time&f=html&t=article%2Cvideo%2Cyoutube%2Ccollection&app=editorial&q=james+beck&nsa=eedition

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Australian Open Break Points: 10 Topics Worth Further Discussion

From Djokovic’s French Open chances to the campaign against on-court coaching – there is still a lot to be discussed.

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The first grand slam of 2019 has come to an end. Naomi Osaka followed up on her US Open triumph to claim the woman’s title. An achievement that has elevated her to becoming the first Asian player to reach No.1 in the world. Meanwhile, Novak Djokovic produced a masterful display against Rafael Nadal to empathize his dominance on the men’s tour.

Now that the tournament has reached its conclusion, here are 10 topics that require further discussion.

1) Novak Djokovic will win Roland Garros, completing his second “Nole Slam.”

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Predicting the winner of an event over four months away is a risky business, especially when that event is played on clay and you’re not picking Rafael Nadal. And hot takes such as this are popular to make after one dominating performance. But the way in which Djokovic destroyed Nadal in Sunday’s final is the kind of victory that has a lingering effect. It’s reminiscent of Nadal’s crushing win over Roger Federer at 2008’s Roland Garros, after which Rafa finally dethroned the king of grass a few weeks later. Novak’s victory over Nadal last year at Wimbledon is what propelled him back to the top of the sport, and reestablished Djokovic’s mental edge over Nadal. Beating Nadal on clay in best-of-five remains the sport’s biggest challenge. But I see Novak winning a few clay titles in the best-of-three format heading into the French Open, which will instill the necessary confidence come Paris. As we saw on Sunday, the patterns in this matchup play to Djokovic’s favor. His deep returns, superior backhand, and aggressive positioning on the baseline all take time away from Nadal. The terra baute will neutralize some of that, but not enough to derail Novak’s quest to again hold all four Majors.

2) The resolve of Petra Kvitova was only trumped by that of Naomi Osaka

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What the men’s final lacked in drama, the women’s certainly made up for. Kvitova’s fight back to save three championship points and level the match at one set all was awesome. Yet the way the 21-year-old Osaka still found a way to compose herself and close out the match was even more impressive. She seemingly matured as a competitor within the match itself. And it was poetic justice for Osaka to get to enjoy her triumph, after she was robbed of doing so in New York. Kudos to both of these great champions, and future Hall of Famers, for their perseverance.

3) Do the right thing and re-name Margeret Court Arena

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Having the Australian Open’s No.2 court named after a proud homophobe continues to be incredibly troubling. While delivering the keynote address in last week’s Australian Open Inspirational Series, Anna Wintour used the platform to address this topic. “It is inconsistent for the sport for Margaret Court’s name to be on a stadium that does so much to bring all people together across their differences,” said Wintour. I wish players would publicly refuse to be scheduled on Margaret Court Arena, but sadly that hasn’t materialized. Instead, a leader from the fashion world was the best advocate for change at this tennis event. The excuse Tennis Australia has provided, that this decision isn’t fully under their authority, is just that: an excuse. We need more officials, more players, and more members of the media to demand this change.

4) The new heat stress scale is an upgrade, but the standard for closing the roof is still way too high

This year the Australian Open replaced the ever-confusing “wet bulb” standard with the AO Heat Stress Scale. It measures a variety of weather-related factors, and requires the roof be closed if the scale reaches a 5.0. This is much easier to understand than the old rule, but 5.0 is too high of a standard. During the women’s semifinals, it was obviously extremely uncomfortable for everyone on Rod Laver Arena due to the heat. The ball kids weren’t even able to rest their hands on the court, but the roof remained open for most of the first set since the scale was still below 5.0. What is it going to take for officials to wake up and realize they’re endangering the health of players, officials, and fans? It’s time for common sense to prevail here before someone suffers from some serious medical issues.

5) The electronic net machine doesn’t work. If better technology is not available, bring back the judge that sits at the net

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There were many instances during this fortnight of lets being called when the serve clearly didn’t touch the net, but the worst example was during the women’s semifinals. As Danielle Collins served to Petra Kvitova, the electronic net machine beeped before she even struck her serve. She subsequently missed the serve and was not awarded a first serve, as Chair Umpire Carlos Ramos incorrectly asserted the beep came after her serve. For years now, players have complained about “phantom lets,” where the ball clearly doesn’t hit the net, but the machine beeps anyway. We should not only eliminate that machine, but we should allow players to challenge let calls. The technology to do so exists, so why not utilize it? Better to wait a few extra moments to get the call right.

6) Let’s introduce the first-to-10 final set tiebreak at all events

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This is one of many innovations where Tennis Australia is ahead of the other Grand Slam governing bodies. The first-to-10 tiebreak was utilized at 6-6 in the final sets at this tournament, and created some great drama. It also served as a reasonable ending to prolonged matches. This is an enhancement over the US Open’s first-to-seven final set tiebreak, which has been used for a long time now. Wimbledon has announced they’ll begin using a best-to-seven tiebreak as 12-12 in the final set, but that’s still allowing for a full extra set of play, when a more prompt conclusion would be best. And as usual, Roland Garros lags behind the other three Majors, as they continue to let final sets play out without a tiebreak. The scoring system in tennis is hard enough for a casual fan to follow. Having four different ways to decide matches at four different Majors is unnecessary. Let’s make the scoring system uniform at all events, including non-Majors, and use a first-to-10 final set tiebreak everywhere.

7) If this was Andy Murray’s last singles match at a Major, what a fitting way to conclude his career

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His over four-hour match with Roberto Bautista Agut, where he somehow summoned the will to comeback from two sets down despite the tremendous pain he was suffering from, was a remarkable feat despite the loss. Murray was never the most naturally-gifted athlete on tour, but worked extremely hard and got everything he could out of his talent and his body. Hopefully Murray finds a way to relieve the pain in his hip, even if it doesn’t yield a return to professional tennis. More important is his quality of life outside of tennis.

8) Good on the fans for booing Maria Sharapova’s ridiculous seven-minute bathroom break

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During her fourth round match against Ashleigh Barty, Sharapova played a terrible second set, losing it 6-1. Then in a lack of sportsmanship, she spent a full seven minutes off-court, in a clear attempt to disrupt her opponent’s momentum. The Aussie crowd reigned boos down upon Sharapova as she walked back onto court, as the sporting crowd is not fond of such dirty tactics. A rule limiting the amount of time a player is allowed to leave the court is long overdue.

9) Starting matches after midnight is unfair to players, tournament employees, and fans alike

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Garbine Muguruza’s near three-hour battle with Johanna Konta in the second round was one of the tournament’s best matches. Unfortunately, almost no fans witnessed it live, and it deserved a much better atmosphere. The MCA schedule ran extremely late, as two men’s matches went five sets (I’ll save the “men’s matches are too damn long” argument for another time). So these two former top 10 players didn’t start their match until after midnight, and didn’t finish until after 3:00am. It’s completely unfair for the winning player to be on court until such an ungodly hour, having to face an opponent in the next round that completed their match at a reasonable time. If we’re not going to speed up play in the men’s tournament (sorry, can’t help myself), at least move this match to a different court at an earlier time, or hold the match over until the next day.

10) One last plea to keep sacred what makes the sport so special. Please don’t allow mid-match coaching

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There’s talk that Tennis Australia is considering allowing coaching from the stands during matches at next year’s Australian Open. Please, Tennis Australia, think better of this. One of the things I love most about this sport is how players are forced to problem solve on the court, and on their own. It’s revealing of character, just as it also builds character. Limit the mid-match coaching to team events where it belongs.

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COMMENT: Novak Djokovic’s Perfection Stole Nadal’s Magic

Tennis columnist James Beck reflects on Djokovic’s latest win and what the future lies for him on the European clay.

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Novak Djokovic wasn’t ruthless. He was perfect.

There were few grind-it-out points.

When Rafa Nadal called on his magic, it wasn’t there.

Djokovic stole it.

As John McEnroe said, “He is having a bad day so far.” And nothing changed for Nadal.

It wasn’t Rafa’s day on Sunday in the Australian Open final. Djokovic gave the Spanish left-hander one of his worst beatings, a simple 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 victory for a record seventh Australian Open title.

A SIMPLE, BUT PERFECT DAY FOR NOVAK

It was simple for Djokovic. He played nearly perfect tennis and Rafa was hardly a shadow of the player who had been so superb in this tournament without dropping a set in his first six matches.

Yes, this one came easy for Djokovic. He didn’t drop a point on his serve until he served for the first set.

Novak simply didn’t give Nadal a chance to get into the match, partly because Nadal couldn’t find the court on big points.

Nadal started without his usual passion and tenacity. He apparently was just trying to get into the match slowly, rather than all at once. He obviously thought he would be able to make a run at some point in the match. He didn’t. Djokovic wouldn’t let him.

A PRICE TO PAY FOR LACK OF EARLY PASSION

Rafa paid a price for not pushing himself to a fast start.

Djokovic came out on fire and never let up, never giving Nadal a chance to become the Rafa that the crowd had seen for two weeks.

Twenty-one straight Grand Slam tournament wins and three consecutive Grand Slam titles put  Djokovic in a class all of his own right now. He wasn’t spectacular against Nadal. But he did almost nothing wrong. He dominated the rallies with his quickness and consistency, and his serve was almost perfect.

It was a clinic that Nadal had no answer for. He probably will stay awake at night, asking himself, “Why didn’t I come out ready to play?”

NO ANSWER FOR DJOKOVIC’S STYLE OF PLAY

Rafa went to Melbourne ready to play, ready to claim a victory that would make him only the third player to complete a double career Grand Slam.

Perhaps it was that sense of immortality that got to Nadal, as well as the fact Djokovic was on the other side of the court.

Novak may be the only player in the game who has Rafa’s number.

All of that was enough to take Rafa’s usual passion away.

WHAT HAPPENS IN PARIS?

Nadal simply has no answer for Novak’s court coverage and ability to turn Rafa’s best shots into winners of his own. But is that just on hard courts? Maybe.

What will happen in Paris in a few months? Surely, it will be more of a grind, and Djokovic isn’t likely to be as perfect as he was Down Under.

Nevertheless, there has to be worry in the Nadal camp, just as there is concern in Roger Federer’s camp after a surprising quarterfinal exit. Just remember, Federer is 37 years old, five years older than Nadal.

The big question is what happened to Nadal’s tenacity and movement, and inability to put the ball into play on big points.

But there’s a long way between January and September. And Nadal doesn’t seem to feel the pressure in other majors that he feels in Australia. Maybe because he already has his two titles in every other major.

The world could look completely different by the time the U.S. Open ends.

James Beck is the long-time tennis columnist for the Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier newspaper. He can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com. See his Post and Courier columns at

http://www.postandcourier.com/search/?l=25&sd=desc&s=start_time&f=html&t=article%2Cvideo%2Cyoutube%2Ccollection&app=editorial&q=james+beck&nsa=eedition

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COMMENT: It Won’t Be Easy To Take The Top Ranking Away From Naomi Osaka

Charleston Post and Courier columnist James Beck reflects on Naomi Osaka’s Historic win at the Australian Open!

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Naomi Osaka! What a surprise this last year!

Two straight Grand Slam titles and the world’s No. 1 ranking.

Even Serena Williams might have a difficult time regaining the top ranking from Osaka. If the powerful 21-year-old Japanese stays healthy and keeps her head, she is likely to be No. 1 as long as she wants.

A year from now, Osaka may own four or five Grand Slam titles.

A SMALLER VERSION OF SERENA

Osaka is just a smaller model of Serena. Maybe she’s not quite as strong as Williams, but Osaka appears to be better than Serena in several areas.

I believe Osaka may actually be faster than Serena, and for sure quicker and more mobile.

Osaka’s serve may not be quite as strong as Serena’s. Osaka’s serve is in the same league, not the single smooth brute strength motion as Serena’s, but Osaka’s power comes from the added acceleration on the downswing.

Even if it’s not Serena’s serve, Osaka’s serve is outstanding. It should carry her to a bunch of Grand Slam titles.

OSAKA PROVES HOW GOOD SHE IS

Obviously, there doesn’t appear to be anyone out there at the moment capable of surpassing Osaka’s ability. Osaka is a terrific athlete.

Osaka’s upset of Serena in last year’s U.S. Open final obviously wasn’t an accident.

Neither was Osaka’s win over Petra Kvitova in Saturday’s Australian Open final.

Kvitova played excellent tennis most of the match with her incredibly low ground strokes from both sides and almost unreturnable out-wide serves on the ad side. Of course, Kvitova is a left-hander, and such serves are her bread-and-butter shots.

WAIT UNTIL WIMBLEDON?

Who could forget that Kvitova is a two-time Wimbledon champion? And she has overcome career-threatening injuries to reach her current level of tennis. She is not someone that Osaka or anyone can overlook in the future, especially in a few months at Wimbledon.

There was no denying that Osaka was the better player in this one match, other than when she had triple match point in the second set. One of those “I don’t want to be here” emotions must have overcome Osaka for a brief time.

I can’t forget what I saw happen last April at the Volvo Car Open, way out on the club court with a crowd of a less than 2,000 watching. There was Osaka walking to her bench in the midday heat during a round of 16 match against Julia Goerges. Osaka was sending a verbal message to her coach that she didn’t want to be there.

And sure enough, Osaka soon was walking off the court in defeat.

A CAUTION FLAG

Osaka’s revelation at the Volvo Car Open brought out a caution flag about a player who only a few weeks earlier had earned a huge  payday at Indian Wells.

What was she thinking? To be playing in a big tournament on the WTA Tour would have been almost any tennis player’s dream. But not Osaka’s.

She has won a couple of much larger paychecks since then. But you almost have to wonder what might happen when she wins a few more of these big paychecks the size of her two Grand Slam paydays and everything isn’t going her way. Will she really toss in the towel?

Or will she have the never-say-quit drive of a Serena Williams?

Few players have Serena’s level of mental toughness.

But right now, Naomi Osaka is the face of women’s tennis.

James Beck is the long-time tennis columnist for the Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier newspaper. He can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com. See his Post and Courier columns at

http://www.postandcourier.com/search/?l=25&sd=desc&s=start_time&f=html&t=article%2Cvideo%2Cyoutube%2Ccollection&app=editorial&q=james+beck&nsa=eedition

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