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To defeat Rafael Nadal on clay, you have to play your very best tennis and hope that the Majorcan is below par. And sometimes even that is not enough
Unseeded Ernests Gulbis pushed Nadal all the way in Saturday’s semi-final, and even though he saw off the challenge of the man who put world No.1 Roger Federer out at the first hurdle earlier this week, Rafa was relieved at getting through and in self-critical mode.
“I think I played worse than I played in the last few days. Gulbis’ serve was unbelievable. I had a break in the first game of the match and then I got another one in the last game but all the time he was serving at 200, 210, 215 km/h – very difficult to return. In the second set I played bad and probably I played better in the first. In the end I won the match but it was difficult in the third set and he was playing well from the baseline. I was happy that I won the first set because that gave me much more confidence to win the third set.”
The victory seemed to give Nadal a real sense of satisfaction, with fists pumped, knees bent and lungs filled as he roared his delight and relief at the end of the match. Was he pleased that his reputation on clay was still intact? “I was happy because when I go on court I don’t think about invincibility or these things – you think much more about these things than me – I was happy because I’m in the final of one of the most important tournament in the world and winning a very hard match. For some moments I had problems and I had some chances also. Perhaps I had more chances than he did but it was a difficult match. I wasn’t thinking about losing on clay. It was a good match and a difficult opponent and it was a lot of points for me, and I’m going to try to win one of my favourite tournament in the world.”
“You cannot play very well every day,” he continued. “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. It wasn’t easy to play against Ernests because he plays so aggressive, and the thing is that I put too much pressure on myself with the serve and so I started to play more defensively and stayed a good two or three metres behind the baseline. This is dangerous against a player like him who can pack a lot of power in the ball and you are in his hands. That is what happened for a long time during the match and I’m going to have to be much better tomorrow if I want to win.”
Nadal will start as hot favourite against David Ferrer, whom he has beaten 10 times in 13 occasions, but as always, the reigning champion was remaining humble and taking nothing for granted against his Davis Cup team-mate. “We know each other and we have played each other many times. He was playing well today and he had a very good victory and I’m happy for him because he deserves to be in the final after Barcelona and Monte Carlo. It’s always the same – I will play my best tennis and this type of match you can only win if you play your best and this is what I’m going to try and do tomorrow. I hope to do it and that’s the way – no more chances if not, it’s going to be impossible to win.”