It was bound to happen eventually.
Novak Djokovic not only turned the tennis world on its head last year as he won three of four majors, he turned the seedings we’ve become so accustomed to upside down. Regardless, it was the same old as Federer continued to draw Djokovic and Nadal drew Murray. Nadal/Federer could be a possible semifinal, however being the second and third seeds, and it was exactly that for the first time in ages.
It’s been said so many times in tennis circles it’s become a cliche. The left handed, physical, unconventional, clay master Spaniard. The right handed, smooth, elegant, gentleman of Wimbledon Swiss. We’ve heard it all. Hell, books have been written on it. Yet, late in the first set, I believe we all realized once again how palpable those differences are, and indeed how special this rivalry continues to be.
It is the type of extreme difference nigh on impossible to achieve let alone see in team sports. It’s also such an extreme difference rarely accompanied by such greatness and regularity in tennis.
It may have been the perfect stage. With Djokovic now a slight step above all, Nadal and Federer were allowed to fight among themselves and show off just how relevant not just their rivalry is, but how relevant and close they remain.
In reality, this match was an audition. A reminder of perhaps the greatest rivalry tennis has ever seen. Yet it was not the final, it was a semifinal. The old rivalry versus the new. And so it was fitting that once again Rafa was dragged around court by the master, but outlasted him and eventually outplayed him quite handily.
Due to Federer and Nadal’s large chasm in styles and approaches, their matches turn into wildly entertaining cat-and-mouse affairs that are largely based around trying to hit the ball to the other’s backhand. Once that happens, one uses lazer like precision, the other relentless physicality, to push the opposing player around the court and win the point. This is all wonderful for Nadal, and has been for years. Nadal’s wildly unconvential matches up perfectly against Federer’s convential, albeit effortless and precise, style.
But what if Nadal were to meet his match? A player who’s game matches up in the exact perfect way to tear down the war machine that is Rafa. You know where I’m going with this. Of course, Rafa has lost many matches over the past several years. But when pre-2011-Nadal was healthy and played his best, he simply did not lose.
It has to be noted, that Nadal met his match, a player playing at the top of his ability, and a player with the exact type of game to tear the Spaniard’s down. And it was’t Novak Djokovic.
Fernando Verdasco pushed Nadal to the absolute limit in 2009 and foreshadowed the type of play that could defeat Nadal. Verdasco and Djokovic aren’t the same player, but there are similarities. First off, Verdasco is left handed, Djokovic is right handed. However, Verdasco’s forehand is incredibly flat, (on that day) reliable, and able to expose Nadal’s backhand by firing cross court from any spot on the court. This is all true of Djokovic’s backhand. Much like Verdasco’s forehand and left-handededness “cancelled out” Rafa’s largest weapon, his forehand, it also dismantled his reliable approach to point construction. Nadal is finding the exact same difficulties in this area due to Novak’s backhand.
Breaking It Down and Breaking Down
The Australian Open final will be remembered for what is now the longest major final ever played. This largely implies that the match was incredibly close to have dragged on for so long (after the epic Isner-Mahut, it is difficult not to jump to this conclusion). In reality it should be remembered for not being close at all.
After winning the first set 7-5, Djokovic dominated what was a series of pretty junky tennis, winning the next two sets 6-4 and 6-2. In reality, he should have wrapped it up in four. It is almost as if these two are resigned to the fact that they’re in it for the long haul, and it is going to be gruelling, regardless of the scoreline.
Now would be the time to throw in the old cliched tennis to boxing analogy. Sure, it is a nice one. Both are individual sports, both involve breaks between periods of action, and it makes tennis look pretty damn good. The difference is, despite being punched in the head repeatedly, boxing matches don’t take six hours. If Nadal/Federer is a fencing match, Nadal/Djokovic is a Medieval bloodbath with battle axes. If Nadal/Federer is judo, Nadal/Djokovic is the UFC.
The two of them pushed the level of physicality in the US Open final to a point rarely seen. Perhaps we should have seen this coming. Both players move so well and play such good defense, they rely purely on instinct at the end of long points (and eventually, long matches). In the end, this is what makes the difference. Djokovic’s muscle memory, right now, is at an insane level. The smoothness and accuracy he was finding off both wings late in the match was incredible. The footwork wasn’t there, but he was still able to just his upper body strength to move the ball and keep the backhand flat.
For Nadal, it is not quite the same. The most obvious point is his missed backhand passing shot at 4-2, 30-15. Despite Nadal’s efforts to work on his backhand, and it has improved mightily over the past couple of years, old habits die hard. The power goes, and so does some of the accuracy and craftmanship. It becomes a “get me over the net” shot. Maybe it’s because Nadal is a natural right hander, but plays lefty? I’m not sure.
This makes life incredibly difficult for Nadal. Dictating points from the forehand is not as easy, as it is cancelled out by Djokovic’s backhand. To make matters worse, Nadal’s own backhand tends to fail him in long matches whereas the fitness and muscle memory of Djokovic’s largest weapon continues to tick and give him a slight upper hand.
Losing the Battle, Winning the War
Nadal and Federer’s rivalry has long been talked about, analyzed, and cliche’d into oblivion. It’s one of the greatest rivalries sport has ever seen. But what a treat to have, with an outgoing Federer, a new rivalry for the ages. The reasons for one man’s success and the other man’s failure are only now beginning to simmer in the minds of hardcore tennis fans. This rivalry is another that has never been seen before, dares to push the sport to the edges of physicality, athleticism, and endurance, and should be celebrated as such. As tennis fans, we should line up our water bottles, tug at our shorts, look to the heavens, tear off our shirts and jump in.