Rome Masters, Third Round
Rafael Nadal  def. Ernests Gulbis [Q] 1-6, 7-5, 6-4
The question, when one sits down to write about the tennis at the Foro Italico – with its Campo Centrale skirted in gleaming white concrete; the sunken, statute-lined Stadio Pietrangeli; and the wizened Cyprus trees standing in hi-relief against the evening sky– is never whether or not to plunge backward into history. The question is just how far back to go: Mussolini? (The man who ordered the sporting forum built and then named in his honor.) Michelangelo? Julius Caesar; Gaius Marius; the Mother of the Gracchi?
But no, today, I have decided to go way, way back to the days when sheep still grazed the Palatine, generations before Servius Tullis thought up the Severian Wall, or the first pubs were established in the seedy Subura; back to the days when Rome was ruled by Kings. Numa Pompilius was just the second king of the City of the Seven Hills. He ruled after Romulus, who, as we all know, was suckled by a she-wolf before moving to outer space and colonizing a Class M planet. With Romulus gone off to conquer Remans and pester William Shatner, Numa was free to take over in Rome and invent the month of January, thereby making my birthday possible.
Needless to say, King Numa is high on my good-list. But even so, looking on as Ernests Gulbis utterly negated the power of Rafael Nadal’s game through all seven games of the first set of their third round contest in Rome today, I was sorely tempted to take Numa’s name in vain. “Numa’s Balls! 1-6, Rafa!? The tennis gods would not approve. I do not approve.”
I have it on good authority that “Numa’s balls” is both an authentic ancient Roman expletive and fit for use during Internazionali BNL d'Italia tennis. For starters, Gordianus the Finder used to say it all the time. Gordianus the Finder, if you don't know, is a highly respectable, albeit completely fictional detective.* Essentially the Hercule Poirot of his day, he went around solving important murder mysteries for the likes of Marcus Tullius Cicero and Julius Caesar, except, in addition to his little grey cells, Gordianus occasionally used a bronze cudgel. Rome could not have got on without him.
Another reason I know “Numa’s balls!” is an acceptable Internazionali BNL d'Italia curse is because I am almost certain I heard Viktor Troicki call out to Numa as he gestured wildly to the sky in objection to a questionable call during his second round loss to a commanding Ernests Gulbis. It was just before Troicki dragged a camera man on court for a ritual mark-witnessing ceremony (take a listen and see if I’m not right). Also, I heard Tsonga use it several times in sentences—and in French no less—when he was gently remonstrating himself (at length) for being even worse at returning Jerzy Janowicz’s serve than the serves of other, shorter, non-shirt-shredding players.
And finally, I am positive Andrew Murray shouted something about Numa’s balls when he had to retire with an injury after leveling his match against Marcel Granollers. Or maybe it was Numa’s back? It is sometimes difficult to understand Murray when he curses, even as it’s remarkably easy to know that he is cursing. It also possible that Murray invokes ancient Roman obscenities as a rule on his birthday. You know, for the light-hearted fun of it. The Scot turned 26 on the day he permitted Marcel Granollers to go on to the third round and ruin poor Jeremy Chardy’s day. One hopes that the first week and a half of Murray’s 27th year will give his back ample time to heal for the French Open.
If Rafael Nadal’s Tuesday performance against the Italian Fabio Fognini seemed to hammer home how far out of league Rafa’s clay court game is as compared to almost all other tennis players on earth, the first set of today’s match could have made fans wonder how exactly Nadal had managed to six of the last eight Italian Open titles.
If you are not a Rafa fan, or if you are, say, David Ferrer, you could hardly be blamed for hoping the Latvian would pull off the upset. First of all, it is truly time to stop seeing Gulbis’ name in qualifying draws—for good. (There is talk about how unfair it will be for one of the other top three players to face a No. 5 seeded Nadal before the final weekend at Roland Garros. Well, what about the qualifier who has to play THIS Ernie? Think of poor Gianluca Naso.)
Second, Ernie can be a thrill to watch. The Latvian can bang out winners from almost anywhere on the court with that graceful, shining cudgel of a backhand. And if his forehand wind-up makes him look like a stork tangled in the swamp grasses, he still manages to produce massive acceleration. Gulbis’ serve was fantastic for the entire first set (and very good in all but the most crucial moments of the second and third). The Ernests dropshot—when it’s working—is as beautiful as it is disdainful. (More than any other player on tour, he hits drop shots like a man used to having other people pick up after him.)
The game plan today was straightforward—and the same one Gulbis announced he had in Indian Wells, where he also pushed Nadal to three sets. He took the ball early, came forward often, and served to (and attacked) the Nadal forehand. He is, as he said he was, good enough at tennis to make it work. Indeed, Nadal looked utterly lost in the first set, and downshifted almost immediately into safe mode. He backed off the baseline during rallies, and retreated nearly out of frame to return serve, giving Gulbis an abundance of angles to exploit, and numerous opportunities to rush the net.
But when Nadal defaults to his ultra-defensive position he is usually trying to buy time, and given his unparalleled record on clay, I cannot help but think it is part of a larger, and largely successful plan. The atmosphere in Rome today was damp and heavy, so Nadal’s topspin was not leaping off the court as much as usual. More important, Gulbis was taking the ball so early that he was negating the topspin advantage and sending the ball back too fast for Rafa to establish his patterns properly. And the opening set put me in mind of Nadal’s loss to Djokovic in the Rome 2011 final. But although Ernie might be capable of a grander aggressive game than the World No. 1, he is also vastly more susceptible to breakdown, on both wings— the cudgel-side and the flapping stork forehand.
By giving himself more time, Rafa not only bought himself time to work his way into a better rhythm—even if it meant conceding some winnable points— he gave Gulbis time to lose his. Gulbis hit 59 winners to 50 errors, while Nadal hit 13 winners to 19 errors. This is a more than typically misleading statistic, because anyone familiar with Nadal's game knows his ordinary, non-winning forehands played no small role in Ernests’ “unforced” errors.
For the sake of story line, it is tempting to try to locate the moment when Nadal turned the match around. There was a point in the second set, when Rafa hit a clean backhand winner down-the-line, earning him the 4-3 hold. He followed the point with an especially determined fistpump. Somewhere in the second set there was also a particularly inspiring lob winner, and, of course, there was the part where Nadal broke to level the match at one set all. But it wasn’t really the kind of match that hinged on one spectacular, galvanizing moment.
In the end, it came down to the ability to execute under pressure. And Ernests Gulbis does seem to be making strides in handling the big moments (not to mention in causing his opponents to have Gulbis-styled meltdowns). When Ernests went down triple break point at 4-5 in the second set, he did very well to come back to win the game with an ace, a winning drop shot, a solid one-two punch, a winning backhand, and yet another ace. But Nadal responded to three set points come and gone in the approved champion's style: by holding serve and then promptly creating and converting another break opportunity. Rafa did not miss his next chance to close out the set, which he earned via a defensive stab at an excellent Gulbis serve. Whether you chalk it up to champion's luck, or preternatural talent, it did the trick.
Not surprisingly, it was a Nadal forehand that forced the error that brought up match point in the third. A final error from the Latvian finished the match. Ernie has the talent, and the cleverness, but he has not quite got the nerve—not yet. As for the King of Clay, history has shown, and today served as another reminder, he’s got, well, balls.
*Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Roma series. If you get a kick out of watching the Roman Republic fall, or just like a good historical whodunit to pass the time on planes, trains, or even treadmills, I recommend Gordianus the Finder.