“A Flick of the Wrist”
Martin Klizan def. Rafael Nadal 6-7(7), 6-4, 6-3.
After three months away from the tour with a wrist injury, Rafael Nadal made his ATP comeback in Beijing last week. The Spaniard was fairly untroubled in his first two matches against Richard Gasquet and Peter Gojowczyk, winning both in straight sets. His opponent in the quarterfinals turned out to be, somewhat surprisingly, Martin Klizan. Ironically, the Slovak was forced to retire from a match in Shenzhen the week before with wrist issues of his own. In Beijing qualifying, he had to save four match points against the World No. 927. In the main draw, Klizan survived a three-setter against Leonardo Mayer before benefiting from a retirement from Ernests Gulbis in their second round match.
This was Nadal’s and Klizan’s first encounter on a hard court. In their previous two meetings (Roland Garros R128 in 2013 and Wimbledon R64 this year) the 14-time Slam Champion dispatched his opponent in 4 sets – weirdly enough, by identical scorelines – 4-6, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3.
Close but no cigar
For the majority of the first set Nadal and Klizan were going toe to toe. The Slovak drew first blood but was broken after serving for the set. The World No. 2 snuck away with a tense tiebreak 9-7. Early in the second, the Spaniard continued to keep his head above water to earn a 3-1 lead.
Up to that point, Nadal had been able to curb the Slovak’s endeavors to be the aggressor. Klizan attacked Nadal’s second serve throughout the match, but until the middle of the second set, the Spaniard was often able to switch gears on the big points, only allowing his fellow lefty to convert one of five break chances. Even after being broken serving for the set, the qualifier had chances to take the tiebreak, but at several key moments he was either let down by his own execution or out-maneuvered by his opponent. In the third game of the second, Klizan vented his frustration by smacking his racquet down on the blue Beijing courts after a forehand error and promptly went on to lose serve. Everything looked as though Nadal would march on into his first Tour semifinal in four months.
Turn of the tides
Nadal’s first serve percentage began to drop as the second set moved to a critical stage, giving his opponent a look at the Spaniard’s more attackable second serve. Undaunted by earlier misses, Klizan continued to step in on the return and was able to dictate play more consistently. The Slovak had initially sought out cross-court battles with the Nadal forehand. He became more able to take away time from his opponent just when he seemed down and out, forcing the Spaniard to defend and redirect with his strongest shot rather than to attack and set the pace. Klizan didn’t let up in important moments, while the nine-time French Open champion was deserted by his first serve one too many times.
In a key moment in the second set, Nadal was a victim of his own habits and his least favorite rule in tennis. At *4-5 30-40, the Spaniard took his time in preparing for his first serve, going through his routine almost 30 seconds after the previous point finished. Umpire Damián Steiner called a second time violation, and the former No. 1 subsequently lost a first serve at set point down. Klizan attacked Nadal’s weaker delivery to force a decider. Looking at the point in isolation, Steiner was completely right to call a time violation. However, it must be noted the Mallorquin lefty had taken longer than the allotted 25-seconds on several other occasions without invoking a violation from Steiner. The Spaniard certainly brought the problem on himself but this instance very much fits into the on-going debate about when and how the time violation penalties are being enforced (or not).
The third set mirrored the second in many ways. Klizan had opportunities on the Nadal serve but the Spaniard once trumped the Slovak when break point down with one of the best volleys you’ll have seen in 2014. The No. 2 seed continued to hit through the ball early in the final set with his trademark combination of weight, depth and topspin off his groundstrokes. As a result he received more short replies from the Slovak which allowed him to flatten out his shots when necessary – e.g. when he converted break point at 2-2. Just when it seemed like Nadal had found his rhythm, dominating from the baseline and a break up, Klizan came roaring back. The qualifier didn’t differ between his opponent’s first and second serve by that point, crushing returns either way. The man from Bratislava won 16 of the last 18 points of the match, only losing one point each behind the serve and return. After over two and a half hours he jumped into an overhead and slammed it into a short angle cross-court to ensure the biggest victory of his career.
For Nadal, who is looking to get matches under his belt, this loss isn’t a particular set-back. Ignoring Tokyo in 2010, the World No. 2 hasn’t won a tournament post-US Open in 9 years and often struggled with the faster surfaces at the back-end of the season. The Spaniard didn’t look particularly rusty in his first two matches and just happened to run into an opponent who was able to produce some of his best tennis on the day. Some of the Nadal strengths were neutralized by his fellow lefty and Klizan ruthlessly exploited the second seed’s serve when given the opportunity. For the 25-year old, it was one the finest performances of his career. Despite coming up just short in the first half of the match, he displayed mental fortitude and stuck with his aggressive gameplan against one of the greats and proved why, for all his inconsistencies, he’s always been regarded as a talented prospect. With more tournaments like Beijing, the Slovak might be able to steady the ship and become a more permanent fixture in the Top 40.