Through the Bubbles

by queridorafa

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.