>David Ferrer put on a stellar performance against world number one Rafael Nadal tonight, defeating his countryman 6-4, 6-2, 6-3. Out of respect for David, and shear desperation to complete what he had called virtually impossible, the Rafa Slam, Nadal limped across the finish line, barely able to run. The raging Spanish bull was injured and the underdog Ferrer progressed through to the semifinals unscathed.
The grind between two of the world’s greatest grinders was on from the first game. After Ferrer held, Nadal battled for 17 minutes and 41 seconds to try and hold serve. Ferrer played some of the most aggressive tennis I’ve seen him play and broke Rafa eventually.
Nadal looked to be lolly popping the ball like he had against Tomic, struggling to find depth and power, with Ferrer all over him as the trainer was called. The cool conditions meant Rafa’s balls didn’t have their normal pop and clearly all was not well with the world number one.
Rafa was taken off the court and as he left he looked at his box and his head and shook his head in an ominous sign. Uncle Toni and Sebastian Nadal looked worried and the doctor and the tournament directors all went in to the treatment room as Nadal took a medical time out. Rafa looked pale and to be lacking power as his first serve peaked at 174kmph.
People speculated that his virus had reared its head as Nadal was broken again and he continued to look miserable as the prospect of a second consecutive Australian Open quarterfinal withdrawal became more likely. Nadal was sweating profusely as Ferrer took a 4-1 lead after 40 minutes. I had a sinking feeling as I realised that my prophesy of Nadal not winning the Australian Open because playing while ill increases the risk of injury was coming true.
The trainer came out again and Nadal said “no good” and looked utterly devastating after a discussion with the trainer. He stretched forward with his thigh was heavily strapped, his hamstring causing him problems, as he tried to stretch gently. Nadal seemed completely disinterested in running around the court, instead trying to hit through the court to prevent rallies. His first serve speed had dropped by 40kmph.
Nadal held as his physio, Rafael Maymo, bolted out of the stadium and towards the locker room. It became evident that the Rafa Slam wasn’t going to happen. If somehow he was to win he doesn’t get a two day break between semi’s and finals being in the top part of the draw and he struggled to play well in Queens 2010 with a hamstring problem.
Nadal looked distracted as he tried to stretch out, having used his one treatment time out besides stretch breaks. Before he sat down at 5-2 he looked to be waling to the net to shake hands but changed directions and sat down, seemingly unable to decide what to do.
Rafa had options. Using an open stance on the backhand would allow his right leg to take force but his forehand was forced to use his left leg as he waited for his pain killers to kick in. The colour in his face started coming back but his movement looked somewhat impeded as he tried to thump winners and he looked truly frustrated. He was able to run but he wasn’t sprinting and he was pulling up slowly, there was no sliding and barely any stretching and lunging as he tried to protect his ailing leg but push forward towards history.
Somehow Nadal got things back on level terms as David seemed distracted by the events. Maymo returned to team Nadal’s box and communicated the events to the eagerly listening team. Nadal pushed on, earning huge respect for his fighting abilities, but he continued to be unable to pull up quickly and still had a significantly slower service speed. As Jim Courier said, hitting the breaks was the problem for Rafa.
Ferrer suddenly realised that Nadal’s forehand was vulnerable and gained himself some set points which were saved by some improved served and some volleys. After 70 minutes a saturated Rafa was broken and Ferrer took the set 6-4, only the 30th time Nadal had lost the first set in a Grand Slam.
Somehow Nadal kept playing, waiting for the 8 minute Australia Day fireworks break which would allow him 90 seconds of treatment. He still struggled to get back in the middle of the court after running to his forehand side, his left leg not wanting to apply the breaks. The courageous Spaniard held serve with some great volleys to level the second set at 1-1. Nadal then broke a distracted Ferrer to love. Ferrer then got three break points on Nadal’s serve as the frustrated world number one punched his racquet. He saved one with a break before Ferrer broke by getting Nadal out wide.
Ferrer played a brilliant passing shot as his hot patch continued. Word from the Australian Open trainers were that Nadal had changed his mind and decided to not immediately withdrawn. Ferrer seemed to realise this was his big chance to get to a Grand Slam semi final as it continued to be obvious that Nadal was in pain.
Nadal was broken again and fell behind 2-4 and continued to have no power in the heavy conditions. He chose a racquet with looser strings to get more power and requested re-stringing which would take at least 20 minutes so he clearly intended to play on despite having absolutely no luck on his side.
As Rafa stopped running Ferrer broke him and took the second set 6-2, watching Nadal as he walked to the chair, waiting to see if the world number one would call it a day.
Nadal stepped up to serve having been broken 6 times in 9 service games as rumours swirled that it was an inner thigh, rather than hamstring injury. Nadal, forced to defend two break points, saved one with his second ace and was given a reprieve by an unforced error from Ferrer. Ferrer did an exceptional job for the most part of keeping his errors low and pushing Nadal as he fought for a semi final spot.
As Nadal’s serve deteriorated, Ferrer continued to return exceptionally as he broke Rafa for a 2-0 lead. Rafa stood as Ferrer comfortably held with great serving, biting his towel again as he headed to his chair. Nadal was simply going though the motions. Nadal sat in his chair looking defeated and on the verge of tears.
Rafa had a chance to break in the fifth game but Ferrer was too good and Nadal was too broken. Ferrer continued to watch his countryman as he walked to the chair at the change of ends, waiting to see if the wounded warrior would retire. Nadal was clearly resigned to his fate but insisted on finishing the match against his Davis Cup partner out of respect.
A frustrated champion used his racquet to thump his leg but it was only a matter of time until the match was over. Nadal went to the net to shorten play but one of the world’s best grinders was all over it.
David Ferrer should be given credit for a tremendous performance and for, for the most part, keeping his mind clear of distractions and not being scared of going for the kill despite the fact his friend was injured. It was, however, a very sad way for a history making effort to end. It is not entirely unexpected with Rafa continuing to play in Doha despite being sick. It’s a well known fact that playing while you’re sick significantly increases your risk of injury.
Nadal is no doubt going to fly home to Mallorca to recover fully before returning to the ATP circuit ahead of a grueling clay court season.
David now faces Andy Murray in the semifinals.
After the match Ferrer said: “Well it’s not easy you no because Rafael is a gentleman and he was playing injury because we are friendly and I had luck…. I think my game I play aggressive. I would try to go to the net… and you know but if Rafael was injury no was not normally won in three sets no? Is one victory for me but is not like a victory really.”