Tennis Elbow: When life gives you moments—Nadal and Djokovic
September 10, 2013 · Print This Article
We’ve been spoiled as tennis fans. We definitely have. As tennis fans, we watch the sport for fleeting moments of greatness that come in different forms—it might be a drop shot, an inside-out forehand, or a serve out wide followed by a volley in the open court…Greatness is all we want to watch, and we sit through the rest in pursuit of those moments.
In the past three seasons, there’s been one constant—the Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic rivalry, respectively the No. 2- and No.1-ranked players on the ATP World Tour. Since the Serb started his ascent and became alpha male of the Tour, the two have played matches that have more or less always been rich in tension, narrative and moments that deliver greatness.
On September 9, Nadal beat Djokovic for the U.S. Open title in four sets and three hours and 21 minutes by the score of 6-2, 3-6, 6-4 and 6-1.
Entering the match, the stakes were as high as ever. A Nadal win would propel him to third on the all-time Grand Slam titles list and add another line to his resume as best tennis player of all time. A Djokovic win would put him along icons John McEnroe and Mats Wilander and ensure his lasting place in history—even though, you know, that place really is already his.
At Flushing Meadows in the final, the moments of greatness came in the form of the middle two sets, where both threw haymakers after haymakers, mixing in finesse shots as well for good measure, in what quickly became a war of attrition. A 54-shot rally on point break prompted the Sky Sports 1 commentator to call it the best break point ever, and somehow it didn’t seem out of place. For a while, it was that kind of match. This was playing right to Nadal’s hands, the fitter of the two players after a walkthrough semifinal in the form of a Richard Gasquet beatdown. On the other hand, Djokovic must have been still reeling from his marathon, four-hour-nine-minute semifinal win over Stanislas “not that other Swiss anymore” Wawrinka to begin the match, and that same win came to haunt him again in the fourth set against Nadal when it was clear he had nothing left in the tank.
The biggest difference for the World No. 1 player this season as compared to his invincible run in 2011 is a relative lack of efficiency in some of the bigger moments of matches. It was true in New York against Nadal (i.e. Djokovic was up a break in the third set) as well as in Rolland Garros in his semifinal against this same Nadal (i.e. he was up a break there again in the final set). But it’s also been true in other matches prior to finals, like a Wimbledon semifinal against Juan Martin Del Potro or a semifinal win against Wawrinka, matches that have left the 26-year-old gassed for the ensuing final.
The Djoker lost but he will be back, because the Djoker is always back. He will wake up with Nadal only about 120 points, or so, behind him in the rankings and his challenge will be to avoid what most believe is the inevitable. And we’ll all watch, because it will be great.
In New York, the Spaniard collects his 10th title out of 12 finals and 13 events this season. In case there were still any doubts, this season is shaping up to be the signature Rafael Nadal season. The 27-year-old won three Grand Slam titles in 2010, but I would put his 2013 season ahead of that one. Nadal will likely equal his career-high 11 titles, which he accomplished way, way back in 2005, and he still only has three losses in 63 matches. The usual healthy Nadal season sees him play many more matches, and lose many more too—in an average year, he loses over 10 matches. Apparently, the recipe is to take seven months off from all competition, who knew? The 2013 season is his, and so is his 13th Grand Slam title. Suddenly, Pete Sampras (i.e. 14) and Roger Federer (i.e. 17) are within reach.
This year, it’s Nadal who is left standing. Since he’s the player who keeps pushing the boundaries of the tour, it’s only fitting that he gets to be in the driver seat once again. It should be a great ride.
Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG