Querido Rafa

News, notes, commentary, the occasional treatise, a few rants, perhaps an open letter or two, generally pithy and incisive observations, and substantial doses of whimsy, all about tennis and/or Rafa.

QR’s Dog and Smoothie Avoidant Barcelona Draw Analysis

First, I have to say that Rafa not being involved in the proceedings of a clay tennis tournament on an April weekend is weird. For the past gazillion years (er…four), I have arisen early on Saturday mornings in April, to be greeted by Rafa in all his splendor on the red clay of Monte Carlo and/or Barcelona. But alas, no such sight greeted me today. Instead, I found myself wandering aimlessly around town, feigning interest in people’s dogs and buying smoothies. It was sad.

This can’t continue, obviously. I mean, the next thing you know I’m not even going to be feigning interest in dogs (who love me, incidentally, despite the lack of reciprocation). I am actually going to be interested. And that can’t happen (although, admittedly, I was pretty interested in a St. Bernard. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen one in real life/outside of the Beethoven movies. Also one time I saw a dog that was almost as tall as a pony that I found interesting.)

Second, yesterday I wondered about the possible explanations for Rafa’s struggles of late. As it turns out, Rafa addressed the reasons directly in his press conference, with his patented brand of clinical, spot-on assessmentizing/unflinching honesty, both with regard to the localized and global issues he’s experiencing with his game right now:

I didn’t play the right way. I didn’t play with the right intensity with my forehand. I played too short. I give him the chance to have the control of the point almost all the time. 

Is not lose, is the feeling on court was not the best one. So not happy today about what I did. Not very happy about the way that I played the second set after losing the first. I didn’t play with the right intensity at the beginning of the second. I give him big opportunity at the beginning of the second. I cannot do it.

The reasons [for making so many unforced errors] is I am not playing enough well. That’s the main reason. I am not playing with the right intensity with my legs. When that happens, the unforced errors are there more often. 
Is true that I started the year great in Doha and during Australia. But, I don’t know, I don’t have to lie to nobody. After what happened in Australia was little bit harder for me to find again the intensity, the confidence, the inside power that always I have. 
Even if I won Rio, I played the final in Miami, you know, remains something in my mind and in my game. I going to fight to try to find that solution soon. 

Yesterday, too, I played good, with confidence. But is not that problem. The problem is when the match became little bit more to the limit, and not answering the right way as I normally do. So that’s it. 

I think after what happened [in Australia], not only the lose, the same time, too, the pain in my back that I had, I had to do treatment after Australia, not playing for three weeks. I played in Rio. After Rio I had to stop for 10 or 12 days again because the back still hurt me. 
But after that I feel the back much better. So I already have since Indian Wells to here I am doing a regular work. Should be okay for that. 
No, no, is not an excuse on the back. No, the back is in good shape. Physical performance is in good shape. No problems about that. 
Just keep working to try to find the solution for next week in Barcelona. I going to try to play well in there and fight for the matches. 

Lose against David Ferrer is not surprise. Frustration? I cannot be frustrated to lose a tennis match. In the life there is much more important things than a tennis match.

No frustration, no drama. Just tennis match. But at the end I prefer to win (smiling). 

So. Rafa is a little hung up on Australia, but, it sounds like it wasn’t so much the one match/loss itself, but rather the sequence of events related to it/that followed, i.e. the pain in the back (which, like any injury, can understandably lead to fear of a recurrence and subsequent tentativeness/preemptive compensation/“off-ness” even after it’s healed) and the treatment and the missed practice/playing time, which all combined to lead to less confidence, rhythm, and “inside power” (I’m not sure if Rafa meant power inside the court, i.e. hitting forehands and backhands with power and depth from inside the baseline, or power inside the Rafa, i.e. Rafa has a special well of psychical power inside him that he draws on to win tennis matches. I am going to assume the latter, because that is awesome.) This makes much more sense to me than the idea of him being hung up on the loss itself (and his rotten luck therein), because Rafa is not the type of player or person to attach that much significance to any one match or to feel sorry for himself to that degree, as he has a healthy perspective and understands that there are much bigger things in life (which he also, incidentally, points out in the press conference) than a tennis match and that he is very lucky regardless of the outcomes on the tennis court, and that as an athlete, he has to be prepared to lose and be resilient in the face of those losses, because as I pointed out yesterday based on Rafa’s frequent pointing out of it, including in yesterday’s press conference, everyone can win, and everyone can lose, every time they take the court.

So. Rafa’s attitude is great, i.e he seems driven and focused on his solution-finding mission rather than disheartened or disconsolate over some subpar results. Nevertheless, I am still a little concerned due to the light switch issue, i.e. a great attitude doesn’t necessarily mean the tennis will come together. Sometimes the tennis has a mind of its own. Rafa had a great attitude in Monte Carlo and Miami and even Indian Wells, I thought–i.e. he seemed happy and relaxed and eager–but he still ultimately played bad tennis and lost, retreating into a strange blankness/nervousness during crunch time in matches, which caused some dissonance for me, because happy eager Rafa typically wins and yet happy eager Rafa was temporarily transforming into sad Rafa on the court and then losing before transforming back into happy eager Rafa afterward even though sad Rafa lost. Like I said, dissonance.

But, sometimes getting back on track takes time, and Rafa does have at least a bit more of that before playing his best becomes absolutely essential to having a successful season. In fact, in a way, it might be better that he’s pushing back his peak-time a little this year, giving  up March and this week in April. This way he can win Wimbledon in July.

For the time being, though, the focus is on Barcelona. I think Rafa can safely win this tournament and also RG and Wimbledon. The draw is not exactly easy, what with all of Spain and one of the few active players on tour to have a winning record over Rafa potentially standing in his way. In the end, though, I think we all know who it’s going to come down to:

(That’s actually from a year ago when Marc qualified for the main draw in Barcelona, but it’s the same Marc, who is once again in qualifying this year and who is one match away from the main draw and who I am going to assume will make the main draw for the purposes of this draw analysis.)

In the final, Rafa will defeat Marc, 6-7(0), 7-6(5), 7-6(6), after saving a Championship point at 5-6 in the third set breaker when Marc elicits a short ball from Rafa and runs up to put it away but then as he’s deciding on which side of the court to hit it, his eyes lock with Rafa’s and Rafa’s like (telepathically), “I MADE YOU.” and then Marc is like (telepathically), “AU CONTRAIRE I MADE YOU.” and then, telepathically/simultaneously, “WE MADE EACH OTHER,” except during all that telepathy, Marc loses track of time and the ball bounces twice and he loses the point and then Rafa wins the next two points, and the title.

Happy Easter!

Not So Gran

Rafa lost to David Ferrer 6-7(1), 4-6 in the Monte Carlo quarterfinals today. It was, per Rafa himself, an unimpressive performance. As in Miami, and Indian Wells, the tennis simply was not good enough.

Obviously, there’s a lot of speculation as to the reasons behind Rafa’s mediocre, by his standards, play lately. Is he hurt? Is he lacking confidence following the disappointment in Australia and subsequent disappointing losses, i.e he’s trapped in a vicious cycle of low confidence/disappointing losses? Is he nursing a “hangover” from last year’s incredible results and is thus unable to summon the necessary drive and motivation day in and day out on the tour this year? Is this the beginning of his inevitable decline? Just a temporary lull? All of the above? None of the above?

I’m not sure. I think they all are possibilities, with some more understandable than others. If this is about Australia, I think he seriously needs to get over it. It was almost three months ago at this point, and it really was not that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things (and it’s not as if he was playing flawless tennis before suffering the injury in the final–his play against Nishikori and Dimitrov, much like his play against Dolgopolov in IW, Djokovic in Miami, and Ferrer today, was nervous, error-strewn, and weird. He got a little lucky in Australia in that his opponents’ play in those matches was more nervous, error-strewn, and weird, but that luck, as he’s found since then, rarely will be afforded against better players.) He got injured in the final and couldn’t really compete. It’s unfortunate, but it happens, and he needs to not let one “lost” Major affect him long-term since every great champion has a few “lost” Majors on their resumes, whether due to injury or not converting key BPs or letting go of leads or freezing up with nerves, etc. Move on. (and perhaps, given the frequency with which he’s been struck down by injuries in Australia, make some adjustments to what he’s doing in the offseason.)

If this is about just not being able to play well enough despite his best efforts, highest motivation, etc. (granted this obviously can in part be a result of confidence issues, hangover issues, injury issues, decline issues (please god no), i.e. so much in tennis is interconnected), that scares me a little bit. It’s like he’s been trying to turn it–it being “good/best tennis” as necessary–“on” for the past few tournaments, and the light switch is broken. Or the light is burned out. Or something. So he needs a light switch fixer. Or a bulb replacement. Quickly.

Grouchy sidenote: All of the exaggerated astonishment and OMGs and THIS IS CRAZY etc. every time Rafa, or any favorite for that matter, loses, is just old at this point, particularly from people who supposedly frequently watch and understand the sport. Rafa is not kidding, and never has been, when he says he, and everyone else, can do one of two things every time he/they take the court: win, or lose. Yes, on clay Rafa obviously historically has mostly won, but again, there are two possibilities–win or lose–therefore the “lose” should never be that shocking, particularly in this case, when the loss is to a player like David Ferrer, who is world #6 and a RG finalist, has beaten Rafa multiple times in the past, including recently (Paris Masters last year), and been close–like, real close–to beating him on clay recently (last year, Madrid), and Rafa has shown that he’s vulnerable to overall lesser players in general (Dolgopolov in IW; to an extent, Raonic in Miami) and on clay (Andujar in Rio) recently. So this was not “shocking.” Mildly surprising, yes. Unfortunately confirming of some deeper issues in Rafa’s game right now, also yes.

Off to look for light switch fixers…


There were breaks. There were time violations. There was finger wagging. There were more breaks. There was a racquet falling from the sky.

Welcome to clay season.

Rafa defeated el gran Teymuraz 6-4, 6-1. In the first set, el gran was a little too gran, breaking Rafa in the first game of the match (el gran won the toss and made Rafa serve first, which is clearly unfair) and then held for 2-0, then Rafa held for 1-2, then el gran held for 3-1, then el gran had a BP for 4-1! Luckily some of el gran’s granness dissipated at exactly that moment and El Rafa galloped to a first set victory, 6-4. Then Rafa broke open the match (4-0), then he got his second time violation, then he got broken, then he broke again, and then he won.

Also somewhere in there el gran threw his racquet over the net after Rafa chased down a dropshot off his own dropshot and lobbed el gran and Rafa seemed to at first sort of instinctively treat the flying racquet like it was the ball, chasing it with his own racquet as if to hit it back over the net, then it registered with him that it was in fact not the ball, but gran’s racquet, and so then Rafa kind of jumped away so as not to damage his own racquet and/or get hit by el gran’s racquet.


Obviously, this match was a little tougher than some might have anticipated, what with Rafa almost going down two breaks in the first set and winning a gran(d) total of 3 second serve points (out of 13) in the entire match. But, for one, el gran is indeed somewhat gran, i.e. he’s not the easiest player to play in the opening round, as he knows Rafa’s game well, is comfortable on clay, is given to brief streaks and strokes of brilliance, etc. etc. For two, Rafa hardly ever plays well in opening rounds (last year, he was broken in his first service game in the second set vs. Matosevic, por ejemplo). For three, despite the early struggles, Rafa did still win 4 and 1 in 72 minutes, which is not exactly a tussle. And for four, the last time I checked, which was right now, titles aren’t won in the second round. So all the other guys can 6-0, 6-1, 6-1, 6-2, 45 minute, 52 minute to their hearts’ contents. Rafa will be over here, dodging flying racquets and getting broken and losing gobs of points on second serves and being better for it, thankyouverymuch.

Setting Sail

Rafa took advantage of the sea and the sun in Monte Carlo today, partaking in a little sailing expedition. As it turns out, sailing just happens to be in my wheelhouse, or, boathouse, if you will. I know all the jargon. All the nomenclature. All the boat words. I’ve seen several movies about sailing, including Two If By Sea and Hook. I once won a kayak race against a dolphin.*
*possibly happened in a dream

So, like I said, boathouse.

A quick but technical review of Rafa’s outing:

“Driving the boat”: This is when the sailor (Rafa) drives the boat.


“Casually driving the boat”: This is when the sailor (Rafa) casually rests one hand on his leg while the other hand continues to drive the boat.


“Looking like you’re almost tipping over the boat but not really”: This is when the sailor (Rafa) almost tips the boat over, except it’s not actually that tippy, because that’s just how the boats are.


“Lying on the ropes”: This is when the sailor (Rafa) is like, “I’m tired now. I’m going to lie on these ropes for a while.”

“Raaar, I’m a tiger.” This is when the sailor (Rafa) puts his hand up like a tiger claw to show that he has conquered the sea.

And that was Rafa’s sailing trip! And I’ve got this stuck in my head for the rest of the day. Or maybe this. Or this. There are a lot of sailing songs.

Here is Rafa’s pre-tournament interview. Sadly, he’s not sailing in it, but, he is wearing white, and, it’s windy. So it’s relatively similar.

QR’s The Count of Monte Carlo Draw Analysis

Rafa departed for Monte Carlo on Friday, looking, with his letterman-style jacket and arresting youthfulness, basically like the captain of the high school football (and/or more likely fútbol, in his case) team.


A short time later, he arrived in Monte Carlo, where he practiced, with none other than Tomas Berdych. Surprisingly, there was no humorously literalistic/borderline nonsensical corresponding posting on Tomas’ Twitter account about the encounter–e.g. a musical interlude from The King and I; a clip from Raging Bull–which I think speaks to the deep respect and/or slight fear Tomas feels toward Rafa. (Or, his hands were too tired to post after dealing with Rafa’s top-spin for an hour and a half.)

Next Rafa played, and lost, a charity poker game to Vanessa Selbst.

(I would post a few pictures from this gallery, but I really can’t choose just a few, because they’re all so ridiculously amusing, not to mention indicative of the fact that Rafa has forgotten the lessons learned during his outing as Tony. Seems like a repeat appearance might be necessary–usher at the U.S. Open, perhaps?)

I’m quite pleased by the loss, because Rafa won his poker game in Miami, but then lost in tennis, so obviously winning poker means losing tennis. In following, losing poker must mean winning tennis. #logic #science

And then, yesterday, the Monte Carlo draw came out, which of course brings to mind The Count of Monte Carlo. As everyone knows, The Count of Monte Carlo is a very famous book by Alexandr Dolgopolov (pen name, Dumas). It is about the number of Monte Carlo trophies Rafa has won/will win. It’s actually already been adapted into a major motion picture, starring Guy Pearce as Rafa. He’s not necessarily the first actor I would choose to play Rafa, but I think he did a pretty good job, although oddly, there wasn’t a lot of tennis in the movie. Also the costuming was a bit strange, as well as the plot. I guess it was kind of an artistic interpretation.

Anyway, right now, the count is at 8, and Alexander’s pen is, presumably, poised over page 9, preparing to make an update. What needs to happen for that update to be made? First, Rafa needs to beat el gran Teimuraz or Gilles Simon. Then he has to beat a variety of other players, potentially including, but not limited to, Andujar/Seppi/Youzhny/ERV, Dimitrov, Ferrer, Wawrinka, etc. In the final, Rafa could face Federer or Djokovic, but, instead, in a crazy twist of fate, Rafa will face Alexander Dolgopolov Dumas, who will be waging a battle against Rafa on the court, and, in his own mind–does he want to win the match, or does he want to add to his book, does he want to win the match, or does he want to add to his book–but it’s not going to matter because while he’s thinking about that Rafa’s going to defeat him 6-0, 6-1.

Check, please!

What Really Matters

Rafa participated in a conference for the Fundación Lo Que de Verdad Importa (What Really Matters Foundation) today in Mallorca.

He–and his eyebrow–were full engaged in the proceedings.

(Perusing the foundation’s website, I, naturally, was drawn to the “night of the cats” page, on which I just happened to stumble upon a photo of one Toni Nadal. It’s a sign! A sign! A sign that Toni is a cat person.)

Rafa said that what truly matters is being happy and that everyone has to find their own formula for that. Although winning tennis tournaments makes him happy, it’s a fleeting happiness born from moments of adrenaline; for him, real happiness comes from other things, like family, health, etc.

This guy’s really got to get some perspective.

Rafa also took the opportunity to joke about getting posterior kicked a week and a half ago:

I’ve always enjoyed how Rafa not only doesn’t not bring up his losses, he proactively goes out of his way to bring them up. It’s like they always say: if you can’t beat ‘em, cheerfully and constantly remind people that you lost to ‘em. (‘em is a relatively unknown but extremely dangerous up and coming player, btw.)

Speaking of not not bringing up losing not that he’ll need to not not bring up losing because he’s not going to lose although he surely will not not bring up losing last year since he did lose last year but luckily it’s this year now so it’s time to not lose again (#goaheadandgivemethesegueoftheyearawardnowthx), Rafa is leaving for Monte Carlo on Friday and is scheduled to play his first match there next Wednesday. Until then! (probably before then actually because I probably will want to do a little draw analyzin’. Also if Rafa posts a picture in a pool or something I may have to add to my collection. Or create a new collection. Like if he posts a picture of himself cooking, I could do a cooking collection. Or, if he posts a picture on a boat, I could do a Rafa on boats collection. So many collection possibilities…..)

Rafa in the Pool

It’s Rafa (in the pool)!

Gosh I love Rafa. Also Rafael. And Rafel. But maybe Rafa a little more than the others. No! No. What am I even talking about. I love them all the same.

I have the weirdest sense of déjà vu right now.

In the midst of watching the Charleston final, I somehow have made a compilation of Rafa’s greatest pool (and one hot tub) moments. I’m not really sure how it happened. One second I’m marveling at the clean, aggressive ball striking of Petkovic and Cepelova, the next second I have a tidy collection of Rafa in the pool photos in front of me. #multitaskerextraordinaire





It’s Rafel!

Gosh I love Rafel. Also Rafael. And Rafa. But maybe Rafel a little more than the others. No! No. What am I even talking about. I love them all the same.

(But maybe Rafel a little bit more.)

(Although, possibly Rafa. #seeheader)

(But Rafael also has a nice ring to it.)

Rafel is looking good, per usual. Wearing yellow. Which makes me sing Yellow. #obv

Rafel is practicing on the clay. Also called la terre battue, or la tierra batida, or la terra batuda, or la tierra, or, la arcilla.


Raf(e)a(e)(l)’s house.


The Why Whys and the How Hows

Rafa’s been out and about over the past few days, riding trains, becoming an ambassador, and watching soccer. He did several interviews throughout said activities, reiterating that he was not at the level of Djokovic on Sunday (#capitánobvio) and sticking with his story that he’s more happy than sad with his result in Miami because it was an improvement over IW. He also noted that he’s looking forward to the clay season, is prepared to work hard, has the highest motivation for the upcoming tournaments, etc. etc.

Meanwhiles, I am still having trouble wrapping my mind around this whole situation. Rafa is saying all the right things, but it’s hard to put too much stock into his words after his vacant performance last Sunday. His third vacant performance against Djokovic in a final in a row. A final of a 1000 tournament he’s never won, in front of a crowd who loves him, on a beautiful day, after a walkover semi and two days off. A final he lost by 21 points. The third final in a row vs. Djokovic he’s lost by 15-20 points. Obviously points don’t tell the whole story, particularly as it’s possible for a player to win a match but win fewer points by virtue of the “winning the right points” rule, but particularly in best of three matches, a 15-20 point deficit generally precludes a player from ever even having the chance to win the right points. So, this is not a matter of Rafa figuring out how to win a point or two here and there against Djokovic. This is a matter of him figuring out how to win four to five games worth of points. Which is a lot of points. A lot a lot of points. A lot a lot a lot of…one gets the point.

So I’m feeling a disconnect, for the moment at least, between the seeming lack of urgency in Rafa’s words and the seeming need for urgency in Rafa’s actions. I still don’t understand what happened on Sunday and why Rafa was not able to be competitive, for the third time in a row. (I am clearly slightly obsessed with the “third time” aspect of this whole thing, mainly because three can become seven real quick.) Rafa has acknowledged he’s been outplayed, and explained some general reasons why–too slow, lacking spark, too defensive, serves being eaten for breakfast, lunch, dinner, etc.–but he hasn’t explained the why why, i.e. why is he consistently not showing up for finals against Djokovic? Of course, he’s under no obligation to share the why why with the public, assuming he’s fully ascertained the why why himself, but that won’t stop me from wondering about the why why. I will continue to wonder (about the why why). (Also the how how, i.e., how is he going to fix this, and how is that going to be different from how he (presumably?) tried to fix it the two previous times so that it actually works the next time?)

It is also possible–POSSIBLE–THAT I AM OVERREACTING (ALTHOUGH THIS IS A HIGHLY UNLIKELY SCENARIO THAT HARDLY EVER HAPPENS EVER EVER EVER) and Rafa has/will have everything under control, that his calm response to his most recent loss belies a firestorm of thinking and planning and strategizing and problem-solving underneath the surface, and/or is an external manifestation of a deep-seated inner confidence and belief in his ability to succeed (i.e. win tournaments) in the coming months despite a few disappointments of late. Either/both is/are fine with me. There’s also the fact that although much of my current worry/speculation centers on potential Djokovic-Rafa finals, Djokovic is far from Rafa’s only competition (just as Rafa is far from Djokovic’s). There’s also Fer, of course.

In conclusion, I don’t really have a conclusion, I literally just wanted/needed to wallow/rant/vent a little bit more about the Miami final and associated clay apprehensions and now that I have, I feel better.

Here is Rafa returning to Mallorca and being swarmed by a large group of small children.

Through the Bubbles

Rafa lost the Miami final, 3-6, 3-6. He was broken three times and won a mere 59% of first serve points, 46% of second serve points, and 29% of return points. Needless to say, those aren’t the kinds of numbers that win matches.

Now, I could try to force an optimistic spin on this and say this isn’t a big deal and it doesn’t matter and it just wasn’t Rafa’s day and at least he made the final and the clay season is coming etc., etc., but it would be, for me, as indicated above, forced. I don’t necessarily think that this latest loss is a disaster or a determiner of the rest of the season, but, just like when Rafa wins…it matters. It’s important, particularly because of the pattern that has now been firmly established, i.e. if alarm bells aren’t going off in Rafa’s head re: the way he’s been playing, and losing to, Djokovic in finals over the past five months, they need to be, because it is not good, and something(s) need to change, quickly, if he wants to beat Djokovic in the future. Doing the same thing(s) and expecting a different result is not a road he wants to go down (again).

Re: that pattern, Rafa has now lost three matches and six sets in a row to Djokovic. And not even particularly close sets–no tiebreaks, no 7-5s, nothing. 6-3, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. He’s broken Djokovic a grand total of once in those three matches, off of four break points. He’s been broken himself 8 times, off of 19 break points. Again: Rafa is 1/4 on BPs in his last three matches against Djokovic. Djokovic, meanwhile, is 8/19. Djokovic has won 190 points in these three meetings. Rafa, 136.

I know this won’t be a popular opinion among most Rafa fans, but: that is dismal. And kind of shocking. I mean, this is Rafa? World #1? Beaten Djokovic over 20 times? Known for his iron will and indomitable spirit? The guy who’s never lost a GS final in straight sets? And he’s just casually gotten steamrolled by the same opponent in three finals in a row? I can’t pretend like that’s not disappointing or concerning. Yes, all of these matches were on hard courts (which, considering Rafa’s prowess on those–reigning champion at 2 HC Masters and 1 HC Major right now–isn’t really a viable excuse), and yes, two of the matches were on indoor hard courts, Rafa’s weakest surface, and yes, two of the matches were at the tail-end of a long, grueling (incredible) season for Rafa, and so it was easy to rationalize them as not that big of a deal, but, we’re now well into 2014 and it’s clear: the tennis has got to be better. Rafa’s got to be better. A lot better.

To his credit, Rafa knows this, and breaks it down with his typical exactitude.

Rafa understands what went wrong, but being able to identify it and being able to fix it are two very different things. I remember last September, in one of his post-U.S. Open press conferences, Rafa said that sometimes he doesn’t really know how he beats Djokovic. At the time, it seemed funny; now, not so much. Rafa needs to know how he beats Djokovic so that he can at least attempt to replicate it. Again, it’s not just that he lost yesterday’s final, or lost yesterday’s final in straight sets; it’s that this is the third consecutive final he’s lost to Djokovic in routine straight sets. Rafa said today he felt slow and was lacking “chispa,” or spark, which is basically the same thing that happened in Beijing and London. At first, it didn’t seem like that big of a deal. One bad match, okay. Two bad matches, semi-okay. Three bad matches, though? Which were all important finals? And in which Rafa didn’t even remotely challenge Djokovic for the titles? That’s a lot of lacking chispa in moments when it really shouldn’t be all that hard to summon the chispa.

On the plus side:

Rafa faced only 4 BPs, and only 1 in the first set. That’s not bad against a returner like Djokovic, and is a considerable improvement over London especially, where he faced 11. But he still got broken 3 times, which is not so great. And he was unable to break Djokovic, and had only 1 BP, which is also discouraging, particularly as Djokovic is not known as a player with an unbreakable serve. So Rafa’s either got to step up his return game, big-time, or protect his serve and plan to win TBs. And he’s got to be more aggressive. Hit harder, closer to the lines, sooner in the rallies. Take more risks. He can’t afford to be safe. Safe equals 3-6, 3-6. He knows that, three times over at this point. Will aggressive equal 1-6, 1-6? Maybe. But that’s really no different than 3-6, 3-6, and there is at least a possibility it could instead equal win.

As Rafa mentions in the press conference above, Miami has represented an improvement overall in his tennis level and outcomes. He played two bad matches in IW, winning one and losing one. In Miami, he played two good matches and one okay match before getting crushed in the final (I can’t really count the Fognini match, since he was injured and/or uninterested and/or both), granted Rafa’s goodness in his first two matches is looking less shiny after the weaknesses exposed in the final. Was he really that good in the second and third rounds, or were his opponents just bad? The unevenness of his performance against Raonic was perhaps telling–i.e. if Rafa has habitual trouble holding serve and winning rallies against a player like Raonic, it’s a pretty safe assumption that he is going to struggle mightily against someone like Djokovic. There’s still a lot of room for improvement for Rafa, against Djokovic, obviously, but against other players as well.

This was actually supposed to be the optimistic part…

Let’s try again. It’s March. Winning titles in March, on hard courts, is fantastic, as Rafa experienced first-hand last year. But it doesn’t mean a whole lot once April rolls around. The continent changes, the surface changes, and with that, the winners can change. The players have to prove themselves every week and at every tournament. It’s a challenge and opportunity. If Rafa can embrace it, find his best tennis, find the inner chispa, use his overall improvement and increasingly positive sensations these past couple of weeks, in concert with the wake-up call loss yesterday, as a springboard for the clay season, then a springboard it could be. But I think he’s really going to have to go after it with the full Rafa intensity and find a way to play his absolute best Rafa tennis, because anything less is likely to be not good enough.


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