Rafael Nadal may have had some blips in his two previous matches, but today he played like a man on a mission. It was well that he did. He was up against a dangerous and very unpredictable opponent. Nonetheless, this was an opponent that had struck a rich vein of form amidst some controversy. The opponent I speak of was none other than Alexandr Dolgopolov. The uber-talented Dolgopolov has made himself somewhat of a trick test for more established champions like Nadal to pass. He’s particularly fond of giving Novak Djokovic fits. Alas, there was no Djokovic to terrorize at the U.S open this year and so Dolgopolov turned his sights on Rafa.
However, the Spaniard didn’t look like he was in the mood to be tested today. He’d already fought to pass two previous tests. How did he do it? He stubbornly refused to allow Dolgopolov drag him into his own game. As I said before, Alexandr can be a very unpredictable player. He loves to disrupt his opponent’s rhythm with very unorthodox shots and more importantly, unorthodox shot selections. There’s a rule when playing Dolgopolov. If you think it’s crazy, he’ll try it. Nadal applied that rule to the T in this fourth round match. He anticipated his opponent’s every move and was sharp with his counter shots. Nadal was rock steady from the back of the court as well and when he went on the offensive, he was ready for whatever off spins Dolgopolov threw at him. Whenever Dolgopolov got serious and played the sort of crisp shots we know he is capable of, Nadal always had the better response. If Dolgopolov found a ridiculous angle with his forehand, Nadal would rip a backhand response at an even more impossible one. The Ukranian had no place to hide today and by the third set, he’d all but given up on the match.
This performance has to be encouraging for the Nadal camp. He showed his willingness to do the right things for his game to be effective on the surface once again. He hugged the baseline and refused to be pushed back by Dolgopolov’s stinging backhand darts. He served aggressively and was willing to strike his forehand inside out to Dolgopolov’s more erratic forehand wing. He also hit his backhand with authority and his defensive slice was knifed so low, Dolgopolov couldn’t do much with it but hit up, setting up a Nadal offensive. Best of all, Nadal moved well. It wasn’t just his side to side movement that was impressive. It was his forward movement towards the net. Over the years, Nadal has become a more accomplished volleyer and he wasn’t afraid to take the forecourt away from Dolgopolov. That forward movement is usually the sign of a very confident Rafa – a signal that the practice sessions are going really well.
Rafa moves on to the quarterfinals. He’s holding up his end of the bargain so far. Let’s hope his rival will too.
The dream match is still possible.