After Rafael Nadal cruised through the Monte Carlo event a few weeks ago plus having not been broken or losing a set all week in Rome, many wondered aloud if Nadal would lose a set at all during the clay court season. That notion was quickly put to rest after Latvian wunderkind Ernests Gulbis amped his serving and return game to push Nadal into a rare third set. But, as usual, the Spaniard figured out a way to grind himself into the finals with a 6-3, 3-6, 6-4 win.
After losing his serve early in the first set mostly to nerves, Gulbis settled down and continued the serving clinics he displayed earlier in the week. That, along with a tactic of attacking the ball early rather than wait to grind out from the baseline with Nadal disrupted the Spaniard’s game, and, at times, Nadal looked visibly uncomfortable on court. Perhaps he didn’t expect Gulbis to come out swinging from both sides or expect the Latvian to play that well period.
Gulbis finally broke Nadal in the second set after missing on five previous opportunities. Once the Latvian served out the set, he almost found himself at 15-40 on Nadal’s serve in the first game of the third set except for his forehand winner, which looked good, being overuled by the chair umpire. Nadal survived that game and then it was Gulbis’s turn to face 0-40 on his serve later on at 2-3. But Gulbis looked that danger point calmly in the face by coming up with three big serves to finally hold the game for 3-3.
The match remained even until when Gulbis served to stay in the match at 4-5 it seemed the moment got to him. Some ill-timed drop shots and loose serving gave Nadal three match points. Gulbis saved one with an ace but on the next point, he hit a forehand wide giving Nadal the win in just over two hours and a half.
After the match, Nadal said that he felt he was not at his best today, perhaps not wanting to give too much credit to the Gulbis attack game which yielded an amazing 50 winners. Nadal said, “You cannot play very well every day.” I have been doing so for a lot of matches and today was the first day that I didn’t play very well. It is impossible to play at this level every day and the important thing is that today, I had a difficult match also mentally and so I stayed focused from the first set.”
Nadal should find more confidence going into tomorrow’s final where he’ll take on fellow Spaniard David Ferrer whom he’s beaten 10 out of 13 times. As for Gulbis, despite the loss, his great run at the Italian Open should give him enough points to find himself in the top 30 just in time for Paris. For many in the ATP, including Roger Federer, having Gulbis not be an unseeded floater at Roland Garros will be welcome news come the end of May.
To read both Nadal’s and Gulbis’s press conferences, click here.