Rafa runs riot in Rome ahead of French Open

Now then, be honest, when Rafael Nadal returned to tennis in February after a seven month injury lay-off, how many of you thought that he would have won six of his first eight tournaments back?

The incredible truth is that with Roland Garros starting on Sunday 26th May, Rafa could well go seven tournaments out of nine if he is able to continue this rich vein of form. Regardless of his performances leading up to the French Open, he was more than likely to be listed as one of the favourites for the tournament, but after tearing through the end of the American hard court season and the beginning of the European clay court season, the Spaniard is the without a doubt the unrivalled favourite to win what would be his 12th major and 8th Roland Garros.

He has had some excellent preparation for the Parisian clay after winning through some testing encounters in Madrid and Rome. David Ferrer twice gave it his best shot at beating Nadal, but to no avail. Rafa proved too strong for his Spanish compatriot on both occasions. Latvia’s Ernest Gulbis also gave Nadal a bit of a scare when he took the first set of their second round match in Rome. But again, Rafa rallied and took control of the match with some superb tennis.

Two shining examples of Nadal’s dominance on clay were the matches against Tomas Berdych in the semi-finals and the final Roger Federer. Berdych had beaten world number one Novak Djokovic in the quarter finals and was running high on confidence from that thoroughly deserved victory. But without too much fuss, Nadal simply went about his business and comfortably dismissed the Czech as if he wasn’t the same player that had just knocked out the world number one.

Better still was his performance in the final against Federer. The Swiss had been playing some typically exquisite tennis in the lead up to the final, effortlessly getting past Potito Starace, Gilles Simon, Jerzy Janowicz and Benoit Paire en route to the championship match. His rivalry with Nadal will continue to rage on as the seasons go by, but many think that the result of the final is a sign of things to come.

The final itself was a very one-sided affair, but perhaps not for the reasons that everyone will be thinking. It would be easy to think that Nadal simply destroyed Federer in a ruthless performance and whilst that is partly correct, the truth shows the other, less obvious way that Rafa wins a lot of his matches.

Federer made 15 unforced errors, compared to Nadal’s seven. This was in large part down to his game plan. Federer was playing extremely attacking tennis, trying to keep points short and go for winners earlier than he normally would against most other players. A risky tactic, because it if doesn’t work, you get results like you did in the final at Rome. But if it had have worked, we may well have been talking about how well Federer played and how he could go on to win Roland Garros.

In some cases Rafa has already established an advantage over his opponent before a point has been played. His unbelievable defence and never-say-die attitude out on court often causes his opponents to out-think themselves. This is almost exactly what happened in the final in Rome, Federer knew how well Rafa was playing and also has losing record to him on clay, therefore he changed his game plan to a high risk, high reward strategy, which ultimately didn’t pay off. This time. Nadal’s style and ability can psych players out and sometimes lead to them playing outside of their comfort zone in a desperate attempt to counter his ruthless, powerful tennis.

Rafa deserves full credit for his victory in Rome. He played some of the best clay court tennis we’ve seen this season, maybe ever. Despite Federer’s errors in the final, Rafa was simply too hot for his opponent to handle.

The big question ahead of Roland Garros has to be: “Who, if anyone, can stop Rafael Nadal?”

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