2016 ATP Cincinnati: Rafael Nadal vs Pablo Cuevas

RAFAPCRUSTYVINTAGE

Rafael Nadal returns to the grind of the ATP World Tour in Cincinnati. He will face off against Pablo Cuevas. The Uruguayan stunned Nadal earlier this year in the semifinals of the Rio Open. It was Cuevas’ first win over Nadal in three tries.

(3) Rafael Nadal vs Pablo Cuevas
All eyes will be on the lefty from Spain this week as he comes to Cincinnati off a heavy workload at the Rio Olympics. Nadal was clearly drained by the end of the bronze medal match against Kei Nishikori on Sunday, where he fell in three sets. All told, he spent just over 13 hours on court in his singles matches in Rio. That doesn’t sound terrible when you take into account there were six matches. However, the most grueling of those matches came back-to-back on Saturday and Sunday against Juan Martin Del Potro and Nishikori. On top of that, he also logged extensive time playing doubles with Marc Lopez. The pair would win the gold in the end, but one truly has to wonder what Nadal will have in the tank this week.

Cuevas meanwhile has already put a match under his belt in Cincinnati. He fought off Sam Querrey 4-6, 7-6 (5), 6-3. Cuevas notched 16 aces and saved seven of eight break points in the match. The match went just under two hours and serves as a nice opener for Cuevas where the two players were separated by a grand total of four points (104-100). It also marked his first career win in Cincinatti. He lost his debut last year to Roberto Bautista Agut in straight sets. His hard court record is pretty plain at 5-5, but he’s savvy and fully capable of taking advantage of a fatigued Nadal.

Their three prior meetings all took place on clay and within the last two years. Nadal beat Cuevas twice in 2015, Rio in three sets and in straight sets in Hamburg. Cuevas got his break through win against Nadal in Rio this past February during one of the best runs of his career. Cuevas went on to win the title in Rio and then the following week in Sao Paulo. The titles comprise two of his five career titles. 2016 has seen Cuevas make four finals in all, the best showing of his career at this level.

In this year’s Rio clash, Nadal was unable to do enough with his serve to help him dominate points. He would win just 63 percent of his first serve points with Cuevas breaking him three times on ten chances. The Uruguayan would saved ten of 12 break chances against his serve and had solid success in winning 76 percent of his first serve points and 59 percent of his second serve points. A key for Cuevas was his ability to grip it and rip it for 47 winners to offset 37 unforced errors. Nadal had 30 winners and 33 unforced errors in the match. The match went nearly two and a half hours.

I’ve been rather candid that I don’t think Nadal is being wise by playing this tournament. Rafa has said his decision to play Cincinnati is based on his chase to make the year-end ATP Tour Finals. He is currently sitting in 5th in the latest rankings and has a nearly 1,200 point lead over Tomas Berdych who is in 8th place. Certainly there are plenty of tournaments to go, but this portion of the season is one where Rafa is not defending much. He lost in round three in both Cincinnati and the U.S. Open last year.

That of course can be looked at two ways – skipping an event would not hurt much or winning another round or more would help aid your cause for making the Tour Finals. Maybe the bait for this week was not having to contend with Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer in Cincy, both of whom are out due to injury. However in looking at his draw, Nadal has a potential brick wall in round three in 14th seed Nick Kyrgios. If Rafa were to get to the quarterfinals, he’d likely see Berdych or 12th seed Marin Cilic. Winnable, but extremely tough matches potentially throughout and that would be WITH Nadal at 100 percent.

Nadal said in Rio that he was still feeling some lingering effects from the wrist injury that has plagued him this season. He said it effected his forehand the most. Nadal said his backhand and his serve remain mostly unaffected by the wrist issue. Comments made towards the tail-end of the Rio Olympics don’t inspire confidence though as he said “at least the wrist did not get worse.” Rafa said the Olympic tournaments should help him moving forward, but also admitted after Sunday’s bronze medal match that he was very tired from his work that weekend. All of which leads one to ask – why would would you push yourself on a short turnaround to play in Cincinnati?

Arriving in Cincy with just two and a half days rest and maybe a day and a half to prep is difficult for anyone. For Nadal in this spot, it is an incredible ask for him to get himself mentally refocused after the disappointment of losing a medal over the weekend and trying to recover physically from a pair of exhausting matches. Yet, here is Nadal going full bore into playing the Western & Southern Open. So how will all this shape up for Nadal in his opener against Cuevas?

Fatigue is a harsh enemy for any tennis player. it takes away the legs, which effects not just the ground game, but the serve as well. Nadal’s serve showed plenty of opportunity in those final matches in Rio with 22 break chances allowed. To his credit, he did save 14 of those chances. However, that is rarely a recipe for success against a solid player like Cuevas. What Cuevas will want to do is remain firm with his own serve first and foremost to challenge Nadal to match him serve for serve. The longer Cuevas is able to hold his service games without cracking, the more pressure Nadal should feel. Certainly Nadal has the return game to hound Cuevas, but you would not expect it to be tip top if fatigue is still plaguing him.

Off the ground, Nadal is going to do what Nadal does best and that is try to grind out points. What Cuevas was able to do to Rafa in Rio will be a benefit mentally here to the Uruguayan. Hitting big and going for winners is still a solid option against Nadal. The conditions may not be as quick as the players are normally used to in Cincy with the cooler conditions due to wet weather, but the courts still will play fairly fast. Cuevas could be willing to test Nadal’s fitness a bit by engaging him in some rallies, but that would figure to play into the hands of the third seeded Spaniard. Even if his legs are a bit heavier from last week’s match play and travel, Nadal’s best moments usually come through rallies.

This will be an interesting cat and mouse type of match. One thing Cuevas does not want to do is start slow and give Nadal confidence early on. That can rapidly grow and pump that adrenaline up, which might be enough to will Nadal to victory in the end. The feeling here is that if Cuevas can have early success and make Nadal work hard, the chances of him fighting back will drop. You never count the man out of course, but a harsh start may dampen his enthusiasm quite a bit.

Nadal may once again defy the odds and fatigue to snatch a win in his opener, but I’m an advocate of him losing within two matches this week. If not here, than it could likely be a surging Nick Kyrgios in round three (if he beats Borna Coric of course). I’ll double down from the get go this week. Nadal probably won’t go out without a fight, but I just think this is a very difficult turnaround for him.

Prediction
Cuevas wins in three sets

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