Rafael Nadal has successfully survived his first match back on the ATP circuit since retiring against Andy Murray in their quarterfinal match up at the Australian Open. Nadal walked out on court, continuing this seasons form of horrendous shorts, wearing brown and white diamond patterned shorts, a white shirt with fluro pink and yellow horizontal stripes, to match a hot pink head band and white, orange and pink shoes. It was a mess. His game, given the conditions, was not.
The only win Schuettler has ever had against Nadal came back in 2004 on a very fast hard court, and the German has failed to get a set off Nadal since then, and today was no different with Nadal winning 6-4, 6-4. Gusty conditions throughout the match, particularly in the first few games saw some of the promotional signage blowing around the court. Nadal didn’t seem too worried by the conditions, a side effect of being trained by his Uncle Toni to play with bad balls on bad courts in bad conditions. Last years final was played under even worse conditions and Nadal managed to come out on top, thumping Murray to claim the title he now tries to defend.
Nadal shortened his ball toss to combat the conditions and his serve seemed to have a little bit more bite than usual and before long he was ahead 2-0. Even with Nadal doing some early misfiring, as he often does early in tournaments, he managed to play aggressively, standing on or inside the baseline and reading Schuettler’s serve beautifully. Rafa was also the recipient of some luck, challenging what looked like a beautiful passing shot from Rainer after Nadal had bullied him around the court to get the score to 30-15 on Schuettler’s serve
The conditions continued to go against the German who continued to desperately try and hold serve. There was so much wind during his service game that every time he started to toss the ball, the ball would get carried far away from him. It didn’t help that his distraction continued even after the serve, with Schuettler decelerating on a number of shots and dumping to ball into the net to give Nadal a handy 3-0 lead with a double break.
So strong was the wind that the doors into the stadium were blowing open and closed distracting Nadal slightly on serve. However, Nadal still managed to control his speed and drive through the ball even with the wind behind him to control his accuracy. With his new octagonal strings on display, which are designed to give him better grip on the ball, designed to help give him slightly more control, which given the level of competition can be minuscule but enough to make a difference, Nadal raced to a 4-0 lead.
Schuettler must then have suddenly remembered his tactics, or at least Robin Soderling’s tactics against Nadal in last years Roland Garros match, because the German suddenly seemed to find a ray of hope in amongst a few wayward shots from Nadal and started hitting hard and flat into Nadal’s forehand corner. He also combined it with a little bit of serve and volley to catch Nadal by surprise and allow Rainer on the board at 4-1.
With both players dumping balls into the net in a unexciting game, Rafa then managed to serve out the game, just, with a challenged ace to go ahead 5-1, with 1 challenge remaining for Schuettler. The German then continued to attack Rafa’s forehand corner before the Spaniard got a grip on the ball and with a grunt ripped a cross court forehand in a vintage Nadal moment. Nadal then abused Rainer with his forehand before momentarily taking his eye of the ball as he approached the net allowing Schuettler to get to 5-2.
With Nadal struggling on first serves in the eighth game, even if he was still able to dance around balls drifting in the wind, he twice failed to convert set points and allowed the German back into the match after giving Rainer his first break point with a poorly timed double fault, and ultimately a break back. Nadal then framed two balls and gave Schuettler an easy hold to take the match to 5-4, leaving Nadal to serve out the first set. Nadal made no mistakes this time, taking the set with an excellent body serve.
The second set started much the same way the first had finished, slightly messily, with Nadal dumping more balls into the net than he usually would and still looking a touch off in terms of accuracy and concentration. Nadal then pulled his socks up, served three clever balls in a row to level at 1-1 in the second set.
An incredible point, where Schuettler actually looked in control of the baseline tussle saw Rafa turn defense into offense to get to 30-30 on Schuettler’s serve. Rafa then started running around to get to his forehand and dictating points much to Rainer’s annoyance, with the German smacking his racket into the court in frustration with the difficulty of holding serve against the Spaniard. He then used another timely serve and volley play to catch Nadal by surprise, with Nadal, in a very unusual situation, rushing and messing up his backhand passing shot. A double fault then gave Rafa another look at a break point which was again wasted. After 9 minutes and 14 seconds Schuettler managed to hold serve. But the damage was already done, with Schuettler being drained from the exchanges, and the incredibly fit Spaniard being almost unfazed by the effort, especially when Nadal went on to hold serve to love.
An awesome backhand passing shot, after drawing Schuettler to the net, gave Nadal double break point, only one of which he needed, giving the Bull from Mallorca a reason to pump his fist at 4-3.
Even with Nadal hitting a few practice shots, something he doesn’t normally do, he managed to close out the second set, and the match, with some great net coverage in 1 hour and 34 minutes.
It wasn’t one of Nadal’s finer matches but it was a good test of his knees and his form in a match that challenged both players with gusty conditions. There were 28 unforced errors to Schuettler and 22 to Nadal. Nadal also won 10/13 points at the net. He next faces Mario Ancic who has been off the tour for almost a year with severe mono (Glandular Fever), in which time he also worked as a lawyer. Rafa leads the head to head with Ancic 3-1.