A Few Thoughts on Nadal – Djokovic XXVIII

You either grew up dig­ging on DC Comics or Mar­vel (I’m a Mar­vel guy); your after school TV show was either The Brady Bunch or The Par­tridge Fam­ily (Mar­cia, Mar­cia, Mar­cia); sick at home you watched The Price is Right or Let’s Make a Deal (Bob Barker and his harem). Risk or Strat­ego? Nike or Reebok? Atari or Intel­livi­sion? The Gap or Banana Repub­lic? Pref­er­ences are des­tiny and I’m a Nadal fan, which, I’ve noticed, con­nects me to a whole geneal­ogy of play­ers for whom I’ve rooted, and over my past three decades of ten­nis fan­dom I’ve been in the Nadal-Agassi-McEnroe camp, hating—or at least root­ing against—their neme­ses (Federer/Sampras/Borg) and feel­ing, along with my heroes, the agony of their defeats. I wept, for instance, after McEnroe’s 1981 loss to Borg at Wim­ble­don and have also never recov­ered from his two-sets-to-love col­lapse against Lendl at the 1984 French, what with the career slam so nearly in hand. In terms of sheer qual­ity, there may be no greater ten­nis match played than the 2001 Agassi-Sampras U.S. Open quar­ter­fi­nal, which Agassi lost 7–6, 6–7, 6–7, 6–7 and forced me to leave my then boss’s house imme­di­ately after­ward, lest I say rude things to his Pistol-Pete-loving wife. Despite Nadal’s dom­i­nance over the past 24 months and his and Federer’s tag team defense of tennis’s sum­mit for the past six years, oft for­got­ten is the fol­low­ing: Rafa suf­fered two bru­tal losses to The King at Wim­ble­don in the run-up to The Great­est Match Ever Played[1]; in 2008 Tsonga blew him off Melbourne’s cen­ter court in straights; and he was befud­dled and dinged into a non-entity at the US Open up until his 2010 breakthrough.

This is a long way of say­ing that Sunday’s Wim­ble­don final was dif­fi­cult for me.

Am I a Nole hater? Absolutely not. He seems like a gas to hang out with, has an up-the-line back­hand and inside-out fore­hand to die for, he moves like Quick­sil­ver (Mar­vel!) slid­ing into a split—on grass, no less—almost as well Kim Clis­ters. But the truth is that he’s no more been a part of the con­ver­sa­tion between Nadal and Fed­erer than Mur­ray has. He was semi­fi­nal fod­der for one of them, given to the RETs (I found his retire­ment against Rod­dick at the Aussie Open a cou­ple of years ago despi­ca­ble). Put bluntly, he didn’t seem to believe; or, worse, his on-court petu­lance and amazed, white-hot glares to his every-sperm-is-sacred-sized camp when­ever things went south on the court made him seem like a believer igno­rant of the gap between his arro­gance and his results. And although last year’s US Open ended with a com­pelling final against Nadal, he never really threat­ened in that match, in spite of play­ing at what seemed like the edge of his abil­i­ties and I, for one, would have bet any amount of money that he’d start 2011 in a state of despair, join­ing what­ever secret, Born-in-the-Wrong-Era sup­port group Rod­dick, Soder­ling, Fer­rer, and Mur­ray attend in the base­ment of an unknown Monte Carlo hotel. “Hello, my name is Novak Djokovic and I’m not as good as they are either.”

What hap­pened on Sun­day? It’s a con­tin­u­a­tion, really, of what’s been hap­pen­ing all year in the Nole/Nadal con­tests and proves, once again, that in ten­nis, the matchup is des­tiny. True Nadal has been sus­cep­ti­ble in the past to being blown off the court, but in the last18 months he’s been able to absorb the power of Del Potro, Soder­ling, and Berdych et al, upping his return game and find­ing his way into ral­lies which he’s been unmatched at dic­tat­ing once they start. Only Nole defends as well or bet­ter than Nadal. Still, no one hits a ball like the Spaniard; and his con­sis­tency, his safe arc over the net cou­pled with a rally ball that must feel, for his oppo­nents, like a boul­der off the strings, almost always pro­duces a piece of junk eight strokes or more into an exchange, and from that moment for­ward Nadal wins the land-acquisition game that is ten­nis so quickly you can see the shot-pattern form­ing two strokes ahead and call the win­ner a solid sec­ond before he thun­der­ously thwacks it to the open court. This is ten­nis as the com­bi­na­tion punch, some­thing another men­tally stal­wart lefty named Jimmy Con­nors used to dom­i­nate the game two gen­er­a­tions ago.

Nadal, how­ever, can no longer do these things against Djokovic.

As I said above, only Nadal defends as well as Nole and Rafa, it’s worth men­tion­ing, doesn’t hit as flat as most power play­ers. If Nadal man­ages to open up the court against Djokovic, Nole retrieves the strike and send the ball back with inter­est, cre­at­ing, for Rafa, a shot-tolerance effect that Fed­erer suf­fered against him, one which for this fan makes me believe in Karma and causes Rafa a nano-second hes­i­ta­tion mid-point, blow­ing his rhythm and often leav­ing him vis­i­bly befud­dled. Put sim­ply, Rafa’s grown accus­tomed to the point being over at cer­tain ingrained moments, and when it ain’t, Nadal ain’t ready, and the advan­tage is sud­denly Nole’s, one which the lat­ter com­pounds with either his bru­tal fore­hand or the best back­hand in the game right now. He’s per­haps the most offen­sive coun­ter­puncher in the ten­nis ever, at once back­board and power player, defender extra­or­di­naire and death dealer with his serve at cru­cial moments, a momen­tum killer at every stage of the game. This is Nole’s apoth­e­o­sis we’re wit­ness­ing: He is The Impen­e­tra­ble One. He can redi­rect Rafa’s rally ball, par­tic­u­larly his fore­hand, up the line and with point-ending or unforced-error induc­ing pace; he can hurt Rafa off the ser­vice return; he can out­run him and, now that he’s gluten free, per­haps even out­last him phys­i­cally (at Miami he actu­ally had Rafa gassed). This is a long way of say­ing that Rafa can’t hurt him as con­sis­tently as he can other play­ers and because the Spaniard relies on per­cent­age shots (the cross­court fore­hand and back­hand) he finds him­self at once rushed and uncer­tain when he should be least rushed and entirely pro­gram­matic. It’s a shock­ing thing to behold the most men­tally tena­cious player on the planet crack before a fan’s eyes. On Sun­day Rafa reg­u­larly looked resigned. Shaken. Shrunken. Near tears. Dur­ing the awards cer­e­mony, Uncle Tony looked like a man who knew his work was sud­denly cut out for him, and it is.

What can Rafa do to meet this chal­lenge? As Vanderbilt’s ten­nis coach (and ter­rific NYTimes ten­nis blog writer), Geoff Mac­don­ald pointed out after the final, he can go up the line on his back­hand, which he did occa­sion­ally with his fore­hand, though both shots require high lev­els of con­fi­dence and risk-tolerance to which Rafa is utterly unac­cus­tomed. He can also come to net more. In my hum­ble opin­ion, the only weak­ness in Nole’s game is his net play, and if I were Rafa, I’d drag him for­ward at cru­cial moments. I’d also take his legs away from him, as young Aussie Tomic did, giv­ing him off-speed junk to fret his rhythm, tak­ing the ball up the mid­dle to nul­lify angles (he’s no Agassi from the mid­dle of the court) and going behind him more. But no mat­ter what Rafa and Tony do, this fact is inescapable: To beat the Djoker, it’s Rafa who’s going to have to change.

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In Mr. Peanut news, here’s a look at the gor­geous French cover, the Lite-Brite skull against a white back­ground. Mean­while, in Ladies and Gen­tle­men news, a ter­rific review here from The San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cle. I’ll be appear­ing at City Lights and Book Pas­sage this week, as well as Elliott Bay in Seat­tle. If you’re around, drop by. Pix to come. 


[1] I’d put the afore­men­tioned Agassi/Sampras match along­side The Great­est Match Ever Played as well as the 1981 McEnroe/Borg final at Wim­ble­don and finally the unbe­liev­able Nadal/Verdasco semi-final at the 2009 Aus­tralian Open.