Wilander tips improving Nadal to prosper during favoured clay court campaign

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Rafael Nadal admits that applying changes to his game is a tricky process but that he must commit to a specific style of play, otherwise he will be “dead”.

The world No5 suffered just the second first round grand slam defeat of his career at the hands of Fernando Verdasco on Tuesday – a setback in what had otherwise appeared to be a solid path towards success.

The Mallorcan 14-time major champion has now lost in the third round or sooner in his last three major appearances. But still, Nadal has been improving his game over the past three to four months – reaching three ATP finals within that period.

“I felt myself that I was practicing great, playing very good. I was practicing little bit different, trying to be more inside the court,” Nadal said after his five-set defeat to Verdasco.

“It’s obvious that all the changes are not easy and especially are difficult to make that happen when you are competing. But the real thing is if I am not doing that, then I am dead. I can play defensive or offensive. But if you stay in the middle, finally, at the end of the day, you are not doing nothing.

“You cannot be in the middle of being offensive or defensive, because it is obvious that finally you don’t have a consistent strategy, then you are lost.”

Nadal’s coach and uncle, Toni, described the Verdasco defeat as “one of the great disappointments” the team has suffered.

“We are affected by this defeat. A loss like this hurts but I’m confident that it is just a bump and that we can improve in our next tournaments,” Toni told Spanish radio station Cope. “Yesterday Rafa played bad and things didn’t go well but looking only at this match is not fair.”

While many may feel like Nadal keeps taking one step forward then two steps back, Swedish legend, Mats Wilander does not agree and believes the Spaniard will be “very dangerous” during the clay court season.

Against the 45th-ranked Verdasco, Nadal went up 2-0 in the fifth set before his Spanish opponent – who is his doubles partner this year – rallied to take the next six games, playing some surreal tennis to seal the match.

“Verdasco played the best six games of tennis I’ve seen in a very long time, if not ever. So how do you play against that? Rafa would know that,” Wilander, a seven-time major winner, told Sport360 on Wednesday.

Wilander can detect the changes Nadal is trying to make but says it will take time before he can feel comfortable executing them regularly.

“I think it’s going to take a little time to feel completely comfortable in making choices: when he stands closer to return and when he goes back. Because he’s not used to doing that, he’s used to standing further away and just get the ball in play,” explained the Swede.

“And it takes time to play smart when you’re trying to change your game. And smart doesn’t mean logically, but smart means from here (points to his heart).

“You have to feel the situation, he has to feel when he takes the backhand and hits it a little flatter, when he takes the backhand and spins it up high, when he stands in close to the baseline and when he goes backwards.

“And he’s trying to change it, because yesterday he stood back sometimes and stood forwards sometimes, and when you stand forward and you miss, then you start questioning ‘hmm, maybe I should stand back’. So it’s going to take some time for him, anytime you make a change it’s going to take time to feel the right thing to do.

“He’s trying to hit forehands a little flatter and when he misses the forehand he has to feel that that was the right shot even though he missed.”

Wilander says the 32-seeding system at the slams means the likes of Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray never face anyone who could beat them in the first round but that Verdasco’s ranking is deceptively low and that he was playing like a “top-five player”.

“To me it was a positive step in the right direction, not one step forward and two steps back. Since after the US Open he’s taken steps forward, and then suddenly this is most probably a step back but he’s stepped forward so far ahead…” said the 51-year-old.

Looking ahead, Wilander believes the clay will bring the best out of Nadal.

“He’s going to be so good when the clay court season comes along. He’s got a couple of tournaments now, so he’s got an extra 10 days to practice before he goes to South America, he’s going to go down there, he’s going to win one of those (tournaments), he’s going to get a lot of matches. He’s going to be so dangerous when the clay court season comes along, and if he gets a good clay court season then the confidence comes back,” said Wilander.​

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#360view: Stars of tennis call for more action over corruption

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Tennis legend Roger Federer has spoken out against match-fixing in the sport.

The mood in the media centre at the Australian Open in Melbourne has shifted since the match-fixing report from the BBC/BuzzFeed came out early on Monday.

What was meant to be an exciting opening day of tennis that featured the likes of Roger Federer, Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic and Maria Sharapova suddenly became about the ugliest side of professional sport – corruption.

While no one is naive enough to believe that match-fixing does not exist in tennis, it is pointless to completely lose faith in the integrity of the sport when there is no evidence.

Talk to any player off the record and more than likely he or she will admit they suspect someone has thrown a set or a match. But is there proof? No, there isn’t, so life simply goes on.

So when an article comes out which claims there is evidence that implicates 16 current or former top-50 players in match-fixing, then you scroll through the entire report and find barely any detail on such evidence and only two players are named whom we already knew about from seven years ago; we’re certainly back to square one.

The fact the report itself said it wasn’t naming names due to lack of evidence makes it difficult to understand where the supposed “bombshell” lies.

Still, players need to be asked about it and instead of reporting on the 128 men’s and women’s singles matches scheduled on day one at the Australian Open, journalists scoured the hallways of Melbourne Park trying to uncover details of the mysterious “evidence”.

The unfortunate side of all this is the reaction of tennis itself. The sport’s chiefs clearly knew some news was about to break and they quickly scheduled a press conference to address the matter.

All the tennis bigwigs assembled into the “Theatrette” to “reject the claims that evidence was being suppressed” but when the moment of truth came and the Tennis Integrity Unit director, Nigel Willerton, was asked whether any players competing at the Australian Open were currently being monitored by his organisation, he simply said he cannot say.

Players were getting briefed by press officers from tennis governing bodies on what to say and the tension needlessly kept building throughout the day. Many questions were dodged, answers were mostly vague and very few players felt comfortable saying how they really felt.

For a sport trying to send a message that it is clean, it is acting an awful lot like a tainted one.

The lack of transparency is incredible and the fact that we’re only now finding out details about the match-fixing scandal from Sopot, some nine years later, is ridiculous.

Andy Murray, Roger Federer and Ernests Gulbis are players who have explicitly called for more details to come to light, and Julien Benneteau said people should not be allowed to bet on individual sports. But the vast majority said little when prompted.

Match-fixing is incredibly difficult to prove, it usually involves very dangerous people and it’s naive to think it can be eradicated from the sport. But the least we ask of authorities is to invest more in the Integrity Unit, divulge information, take any evidence seriously and educate the players.

This is a problem tennis cannot hide from. It’s time we’re all open about it.

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Reem’s Melbourne Diary: Hewitt turns the tables, Raonic explains his shield

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Use #360fans to share with us your quirky Australian Open stories.

MELBOURNE, Australia: His signature look includes a sleeve on one arm, impeccable hair and now apparently, a mouth guard.

Milos Raonic could step off a tennis court and be ready to shoot some hoops or step into a boxing ring if he wanted to.

The world No14’s mouth guard has caused a stir on social media but it turns out, he’s actually wearing it during matches for a very good reason.

“Just to not grind my teeth while I play. It just causes stress and headaches sometimes,” The Canadian explained on Tuesday.

“I wear it all the time other than when I’m eating, so I got used to it pretty quickly. Maybe I fiddle it with it too much while I play, but other than that it’s pretty much there all the time.”

C’mon Day
Melbourne Park saw record numbers for Tuesday’s attendance, mainly because it was the kicking off of Lleyton Hewitt’s farewell tournament, which organisers decided to call ‘C’mon Day’ in honour of the Aussie legend.

Ex-Formula One driver and reigning World Endurance champion Mark Webber was among Hewitt’s guests and he stuck around to congratulate the Australian and his family outside the players’ restaurant after the match.

On-court, Hewitt turned the tables on interviewer Jim Courier, when the American told him he had run out of questions for him.

Hewitt and Courier will be captaining Australia and USA respectively in their upcoming Davis Cup tie in March and the Aussie took the chance to try and get some info from his adversary.

Here’s how the conversation went…

Baby hopes
Australian Sam Groth faces Andy Murray in the second round and is aware of the tough task ahead of him against the world No2.

Groth dons a huge serve and could prove tricky for Murray but the Aussie said he’d also be happy if his opponent’s wife, Kim, went into labour so the Scot would have to fly back home and hand him a walkover.

“I will have the home crowd with me and I’ve got nothing to lose. Be nice if his wife went into labor overnight, but…” joked Groth on Tuesday.

Considering the form Murray showed in his first round, it’s fair to assume many in his section of the draw are wishing the same thing.

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