AO Day 3: We Damn Near Had a Cataclysm

Rafael Nadal

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Sam Groth beat Thanasi Kokkinakis in the all-Aussie matchup, and Nick Kyrgios beat the Croat serving machine Ivo Karlovic. Sure they are good stories, but they pale to what nearly happened to two of the giants in the game.

I am not a fan of either Maria Sharapova’s or Rafael Nadal’s game. For Maria, it wasn’t until I watched her in person at the 2011 BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells that it dawned on me: she has no idea how to construct a point. All she has is power, and she relies on that to get out of whatever jam she might find herself in. It’s really annoying.

Maria was losing badly to Caroline Wozniacki in the semifinals of the tournament, and a tournament volunteer who was a Sharapova fan sat next to me. Watching the match in person, I saw Maria his a forehand error after forehand error after forehand error. It was awful to watch. Early in the second set of the 6-1, 6-2 drubbing, that’s when it dawned on me that Maria didn’t know how to construct a point.

Similarly yesterday Sharapova was in trouble against the 150th ranked qualifier Alexandra Panova. After breezing through the first set 6-1, that’s when the errors caught up with Maria. After only eight unforced errors in the first set, Maria hit 23 unforced errors in the second set losing 6-4. It was more of the same in the third set as Panova quickly got out to a two-break lead.

As always, Maria stayed the course trying to power Panova off the court. It worked. Panova’s serve failed her, and what were errors earlier in the third set became winners.

Maria pulled out the match 7-5 in the third set, and it was actually pretty awe-inspiring. Putting my prejudices aside, it was a remarkable thing to watch Maria escaping two match points in the 12th game of the third set with booming forehand winners. But it leaves me to wonder what Maria could have done if she tried to get to the net more. Or try a slice? There’s no denying Maria is a great player, but it’s frustrating.

Equally frustrating is Rafael Nadal. I’m all for giving it all, but if you want to survive you can’t do that for every point. Like Maria, it seems like Rafa subscribes to a see-ball-hit-ball ethos with very little thought in between. That’s why I’m not surprised he’s gone through all the injuries he’s gone through at the age of 28.

Against Tim Smyczek, the American ranked 112 in the world, Rafa fell ill at the end of the first set.

“At the end of the first set, I start to feel my body very bad, very tired. I don’t know,” he said in the postmatch conference. “I was worrying crazy. Then when I was serving for the third, almost throw up. So was terrible feeling, no? I suffered too much on court for three hours and a half. I was suffering a lot. Too much.”

Despite almost having to do the unthinkable and retiring the match, Rafa played through it and found a way to win 7-5 in the fifth set. “In terms of physically, at the end of the match I started to felt little bit better.”

I don’t like their games, but man, what we saw yesterday were two examples of greatness.