A Few Thoughts on Nadal/Djokovic XXIX

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.

3rd Set:

Into the annals of sports his­tory we go.

4th Set:

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?

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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.