Nobody would ever describe Rafael Nadal's 2½ hour, break-point laden 7-5, 7-5 win against No. 8 seed Fabio Fognini in Hamburg over the weekend as being a model of anything except, perhaps, the survival instinct at work.
It was, by any standard, an ugly win (the men combined for 87 unforced errors, 60 by Fognini). But it earned Nadal the same number of ranking points and prize money as the prettiest win you can imagine. And bear in mind that Fognini was a major co-author of the Nadal's woes this year, having beaten the King of Clay with his own scepter twice this year on Nadal's own beloved red clay.
After his win Sunday, Nadal was asked in an on-court interview to share his thoughts on the upcoming hard-court season. Now holding 47 clay-court titles (just two shy of Guillermo Vilas' ATP career record), Nadal replied: "I don't know. I won an important title on clay, I want to enjoy that. It was my third one of the year. It was my biggest [of the year] yet."
Survival clearly was task No. 1 for Nadal last week. Task No. 2, now that he demonstrated he's riding some sort of emotional coaster rather than spiraling uncontrollably down some dark and mysterious drain, will be bringing comparable mental toughness and skill to the looming hard-court Masters events and the US Open.
Some may already think this is a lost cause, because Nadal's summer hard-court profile is best described as blurred. He isn't exactly written off, but he's definitely undervalued during the North American swing, and perhaps misapprehended. There's no really good explanation for it, except for the theory that by the time the cicadas start rattling in the trees in Ohio, people are kind of Nadaled-out.
Case in point: It would probably shock some to learn that Nadal has been in the final of the US Open every year he's played since 2010, and he's won the title twice in that span.
When you think of Nadal and hard-court proficiency, Indian Wells pops to mind. It might be because Nadal is famously pals with billionaire entrepreneur Larry Ellison. It might be because Nadal has won at Indian Wells three times, going back to 2007 and has raved about how he cracked the hard-court code in the clear, dry desert air. (The key: Play aggressively from on or inside the baseline). Indian Wells has been the hard-court tournament at which Nadal has seemed the most comfortable and dialed in -- or so it seems.
But Nadal has won just as many titles in Canada, and his winning percentage is almost identical -- 85 percent in Indian Wells (44-8); 81 percent in Canada (26-6). Nadal has just one title in Cincinnati (where he is 18-8), and he's never won a title in Miami (35-10).
Nadal's desire to enjoy his victory and shut out all other considerations Sunday was short-lived. Not long after the trophy presentation ceremony, he said, "Now the hard-court season is starting, it's a different story. But at the same time, I'll keep going with the same mentality."
That mentality has taken him far in the summers past. All he needs now is the game to go with it.