The European clay season has just one stop remaining before the French Open, and the following is absolutely true: With wins in Munich and Madrid, Andy Murray has won more titles on clay this week than Rafael Nadal has all season long.
Mind you, Murray had never even taken a clay title at the ATP level before the Munich event, and now can say he beat the greatest clay courter of all time in a clay Masters 1000 final – in his own country, nonetheless. The Scot’s 6-3, 6-2 victory in Sunday’s Madrid final was not the end result of a virtuoso performance by any means. Murray was very solid, and employed appropriate tactics for the occasion. The thumping scoreline, however, was not as indicative of how well Murray played, but of how dismal Rafael Nadal’s level was.
Comparing Nadal’s showing in the Sunday final to his form in the semifinal over Tomas Berdych the day before boggles the mind. On Saturday, after a tough first set that saw Nadal peak at the right time in the tiebreaker, the nine-time French Open champion rolled over Berdych in the second, providing his compatriots in the stands with a jaw-dropping array of blistering forehands. This was the Rafael Nadal of old, the man who could do pretty much anything he wanted on a tennis court equipped with the crushed brick. Sure, Berdych was his usually disappointing self against the elite; more often than not the Czech set up his own demise with poor tactical choices. But few could argue against the feeling that for the first time in this clay season, we finally caught a glimpse of the supreme ruler of Roland Garros.
All of that came to a screeching halt as soon as the Madrid final started. To say Nadal was a shadow of his semifinal self would be kind. He won only two points in the first three games, and never could get out of the hole he dug for himself so early in the match. The second set started off in even worse fashion, as Nadal fell behind 0-4 after a display that made one wonder if a club hack had taken control of the Spaniard’s body. There really wasn’t a shot Nadal couldn’t find a way to bungle.
It had to be absolutely disorienting for a man who’s achieved so much to not have control over any part of his game. In his press conference following the loss, he articulated this explanation:
Rafa said his backhand was the biggest problem today, and when it failed it “pulled down” the rest of his game.
— Tumaini Carayol (@tumcarayol) May 10, 2015
Regardless of whether the backhand was the crack that broke the dam, it’s impossible to argue that the dam didn’t break. The forehand was a knock-off version of its semifinal level. The serve wasn’t really giving Nadal any kind of edge. And in terms of returning serve, a simple stat tells the sad story: Nadal managed to win just 19 percent of points played with Murray’s second delivery (a notorious weakness in the Scot’s game). As a frame of reference, Nadal averages 55 percent of 2nd serve return points won for his entire career.