If the 2011 U.S. Open tells the serious fan anything, it’s that men’s tennis is now a three-way conversation between Djokovic, Nadal, and Federer. In the semis, Fed’s slashing, quicksilver offense, his amped-up serve, musketeer’s movement, and better-than-ever backhand once again brought Novak to the brink, and the best article I’ve read about Roger’s second annual failure to close him out comes from The New Yorker’s Nick Paumgarten. I’ve never been quite as wowed by Fed as Nick, or DFW—God rest his Kurt Cobain Soul—but he was, for a time, the sport’s Tiger Woods, a player who made winning seem ancillary to how he played (see DFW’s classic piece on Fed), a foregone conclusion given his genius which shifted the viewer’s focus not to whether or not he’d win but to how he’d do it, what magic he’d produce, as if he were some tennis demiurge’s avatar, Odin’s Thor, etc. Interestingly, like Tiger, Fed never had a great rival till Nadal and Djokovic began to peak, and his “decline”—really, it should be described as the end of his dominance—has everything to do with their rise and less with his diminishing speed, competitiveness, whatever. In fact, I don’t think he’s even diminished. At risk of telegraphing the direction of this post, he seemed more WITH Djokovic in his semifinal than Rafa ever did yesterday—first two lengths ahead, then neck and neck, to, well, a Hail-Mary forehand followed by a brilliant blocked-back backhand—but that, as Chekhov says, is a song from another opera. In the bottom half of the draw, I don’t know what to say about Murray except that he’s proved himself a mental lightweight and his game, when compared to the big three, seems lightweight as well. He has the speed, touch, and power to bang with them all, but mid-match he just goes away or, against Rafa, never really brought it to start with. He seems in a perpetual funk about the fact that beating these guys isn’t easy, the Achilles’ heel of many supremely talented athletes who never reach their potential (see Vince Young). He’s always complaining to his camp or trotting out his usual bundle of tics: punching his strings, grabbing his knee cap, hitting his shoe. In the semifinal, his newest and most conspicuous addition to this list was yanking at his short’s pocket, which kept springing from his Addidas like bunched boxers from an unzipped fly, this clothing malfunction yet more evidence, he seemed to be indicating to his mom, his hot girlfriend, his coach, of some grand conspiracy to prevent him from ever winning a major. To quote a favorite comic, There’s a lot of quit in that boy.
(BTW, I stand with Mary Carillo about these pow-wows: I’m tired of the incessant illegal coaching consultations Murray, Djoker, and Nadal engage in. Not only should the USTA enforce the rule but Fed is by a mile the grownup of the bunch in this regard. The match is a test, he’s been quoted as saying. On court, your coach can’t help you. Amen, Your Excellency.)
Now to the final: Generally speaking, it was a brutally academic affair, a Serbian-run clinic, really, in A. The Power of Court Positioning and B. A Study Guide to Beating Nadal. All of Djoker’s finals with Nadal have been that this year, but the thrills this match supplied arose, in part, from Rafa’s determination to fight this losing battle start to finish, and I defy any tennis fan to find a match in recent memory played at this pace, at such a blur—Weirding-Way tennis for you Dune geeks—with so many haymakers thrown you’d think Stallone had scripted it, with boggling gets that were also miracle replies to arrow-shot approaches unlike anything I’ve ever seen; a contest that was painful, at times, to watch, really excruciating to behold, because the physical toll on both players was evident as third set came to its thunderous conclusion, so that this seemed less a tennis court then a coliseum, a to-the-death affair, and when Rafa took the third’s tiebreak there was an expression of disbelief on Nole’s face that honestly warmed this weekend hacker’s heart. (Let’s call it a draw, dude. If we play for any longer, my wife’s going to kill me. Plus my back’s in bad shape.) My inner Mother Teresa wants to upbraid the USTA for destroying the very players who line its pockets. My inner sadist would’ve liked to watch either Nole or Rafa emerge from bed this morning. I’m picturing the opening scene of North Dallas Forty without the Quaaludes and pot.
Regarding A. and B. above, they go together, of course, but what Djokovic takes advantage of with surgical precision is Nadal’s short ball, the selfsame rally ball that is his bread and butter against mere mortals. Nole pushes Rafa back on the lefty-forehand to righty-backhand exchanges (Djoker’s two-hander being THE best shot in tennis right now) then steps in and goes up the line; and Rafa, who retrieves more of these than any human being should be able to, cannot, in spite of his daunting speed, cover the open territory. Nole next goes up the line hard and flat, all his tentativeness banished during Davis Cup last November. Point. Game. Set. Match. And true, other players (we’re at B. now) have occasionally blown Rafa off the court (Del Potro, Tsonga) but in these cases they were going for broke, playing out of their minds, you pick the cliché. Nole is fast enough, measured enough, accurate enough, to make it routine, some crazy combination of anticipation and world-class speed that confer on him a hummingbird’s perception, the points unfolding, to him at least, comparatively slowly. He’s just always there.
As for the match set by set, it went like this:
1st Set: The Wind. Rafa: “Why there this wind like this?” Nole, the Egoless One in the Zone of Zones, tunes him.
2nd Set: The Ridiculous 6th Game. If Rafa goes up 3–0, he’s still fresh enough that it’s a momentum-swinger, and perhaps he starts letting it fly, but as happened over the course of the whole match, Nole breaks back and Rafa’s ensuing break to 4–4, is basically a Pyrric victory.
Into the annals of sports history we go.
Rafa, spent—it’s hard to believe I’m writing this—simply goes away.
A few other things: There’s been a lot of hyperbole about Nole’s return of serve and, well, sorry folks, the Agassi comparisons aren’t appropriate yet. Go watch, say, the 1995 Australian Open final when Pete was dropping bombs and Andre was sending back unreturnables once a game. Go check out some film of Connors on YouTube. Rafa’s serve was, for most of this match, a point-starter. Gone was last year’s commitment to pop, to hitting the 130s, to pitching. Rafa, in this matchup, isn’t a confident fellow. His serving percentages bore this out, he said as much in the post-match interviews, and he was regularly broken back after breaking, THE momentum killer in singles. Rafa’s confidence gap was also demonstrated in his failure to go up the line on his forehand side and almost never on the backhand. (Roddick’s desperate willingness to do this almost won him Wimby a couple of years back.) In my opinion, only at 5–6 down in the third did Rafa let it fly for an extended period, and it produced scintillating, jaw-dropping exchanges, Thrilla-in-Manilla stuff.
But make no mistake. No matter who you’re rooting for, this is a Golden Age of International Tennis. We have gone from The Reign of Fed to the Battles of Fed/Rafa to the Rise of Nole. Is Peter Jackson directing this movie? I haven’t been this excited since The Empire Strikes Back came out and there was no such thing as iTunes Trailers. What, I’m wondering, is next?
In Mr. Peanut news, I’ll be appearing with the great Jim Sheppard Sunday, October 16, at The Southern Festival of Books in Nashville; in New York, on October 19, at The Better Book Club—an event that certainly promises to be different. In Ladies and Gentlemen news, here’s an interview I did for The Story Prize blog.