What we learned from Nadal's upset scare
Rafael Nadal seldom celebrates first-round wins at majors as exuberantly as he did after defeating John Isner. (Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
What did we learn from Rafael Nadal's five-set victory over John Isner today?
We learned that Nadal, like most players, is vulnerable -- even on clay -- to a guy clobbering serves. (Had Nadal stood any further back when returning he would have been in a different arrondissement.) We learned that Nadal, despite his unremarkable 2011, still fights like hell and is in supreme condition. We learned that John Isner is better than his ranking of No. 39 indicates and even gets some of the nuances of clay. We learned that organziers are thrilled they've decided to play best-of-five format matches in majors. Otherwise the five-time champ would be off fishing.
To what degree did the new balls affect today's result?
I’m curious to hear the players’ response. Only in the dysfunctional Land of Tennis would they use balls from Brand A during the tune-ups events, only to switch to balls from Brand B for the Grand Slam. And then express surprise when the players complain and the brand is maligned.
What does it mean for Nadal's tournament moving forward?
We’ll see. This had echoes of Federer’s match with Alejandro Falla last year at Wimbledon. Federer was pushed to a fifth, but then showed no ill effects in the next few rounds. (He lost in the quarters.) Plenty of times we see a top seed get pushed early in a tournament, persevere, and then never look back. If Nadal had been beaten off the ground by a conventional player, it would have been one thing. But when a player to whom you’re spotting seven inches in height is serving 140 m.p.h. bombs and using his reach to pick off some passing shots, it’s a bit different.
What does it mean for Isner's season moving forward?
I think Isner ought to be pleased with himself. He took two sets off Nadal which is more than 14 French Open opponents in 2008 and 2010 did COMBINED! His movement has improved. His decision-making has improved. His serve and reach will make him tough on any surface. Obviously there’s some conditioning work that needs upgrading, but if ever a first-round loser should exit with head high, this would be it. He may not have the game to win majors, but the notion that he isn’t among the world’s top 32 players is absurd. In a perfect world, he is ranked commensurate with his talent and today’s match never happens; at least not in the first round.
As an aside: I think, in an indirect way, we got a good demonstration of grass’ uniqueness today. Isner was comparably tired after five sets today as he was after the 70-68 fifth set against Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon last year. When the points are so much shorter and the ball is in play much less, it makes a big difference.
Does the vulnerability shown today by Nadal compromise his standing as the co-favorite? The kneejerk response is “yes.” Someone tweeted me: “We’re watching Nadal get old before our eyes.” Coupled with the two losses to Djokovic coming in, he is not cutting his usual swatch of destruction. But Isner is such an awkward opponent -- Nadal likened the match to a soccer shoot-out; presumably on Isner’s serve, he’s the goalie just hoping to guess right -- I’m not sure how much we really want to read into today’s result. And Nadal rallied from two-sets-to-one down, so maybe this is a confidence boost after all.