Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Match of the day: Rafael Nadal (ESP) (1) v John Isner (USA

Match of the Day: 23 May 2011
As he sets out to equal Bjorn Borg's record of six French Open titles, Rafael Nadal cursed his luck when Ana Ivanovic picked out John Isner's name at the draw. The trickiest of first round opponents, Isner may have no great pedigree on clay but his mighty serve and booming groundstrokes can trouble the best, on any surface, at any time.

Beatable Nadal?
Nadal has lost some of his aura on clay in recent weeks. Previously virtually unbeatable on the red dirt, the man with a 38-1 record in Paris has suffered successive straight-sets defeats to Novak Djokovic, first in the final at Madrid and then at the same stage in Rome. Those losses speak volumes, mostly of Djokovic's sensational progress in recent months, but also of Nadal's inability to overpower an adversary on clay, something he has been doing ruthlessly and relentlessly throughout his career.

The Majorcan's invulnerability on the surface has been built around his incredible energy and speed, backed up by the wicked top spin he puts on the ball, particularly on the forehand side. Opponents usually find themselves on the back foot, leaning back as the ball kicks up at them. They are often pushed back behind the baseline too, and in the case of right-handers, regularly end up retrieving the ball above chest height on their backhand.

When an opponent does get on the front foot and dominate a rally, Nadal's brilliant defensive skills, allied with huge reserves of energy often mean he chases balls down and turns the point around. That Djokovic, by stepping into the court, taking the ball early and taking more risks with his forehand managed to stop Nadal from dictating proceedings will give hope to others, starting with his first round opponent here.

Historic Isner
Isner is assured a place in tennis history come what may. Famous for his marathon three-day victory over Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon last year in 11 hours five minutes of play, Isner finally prevailed 70-68 in the fifth set, serving 113 aces in all.

That world record number of aces is the revealing stat from that freak encounter. Isner stands 6'9" in his socks and booms down massive serves from all angles at a height that makes him incredibly difficult to break. Clay's decelerating qualities would normally take the edge off his opening salvo, but less so this year. The new Babolat balls are bouncing higher off the Paris red earth, which has been baked harder than ever before in the drought-like conditions this year. Isner's favourite weapon should serve him well again here.

The American's game is not all about his service either. His forehand is crunching and his ability to get around the court despite his considerable frame remarkable. His fitness, as shown in that match with Mahut, has improved considerably and he is a cool customer too, not likely to crumble should he get his nose in front. Whether he can return well enough to carve out break points against Nadal remains to be seen, but an exciting match is definitely in prospect.

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