Deep Breaths

Monday, November 16, 2009 /by

Nd-gm We thought this would be the generation of the giant. We hoped it would be the generation of the stylishly versatile. We, or at least I, have feared that it could turn into the generation of the nice. But after three hours of watching Novak Djokovic and Gael Monfils labor their way through the final in Bercy on Sunday, I think I know what to call this current crop of male pros: the Generation of the Heavy Breather. Both guys spent long periods sucking wind—Monfils through his mouth, Djokovic up his nose. Add fellow air seeker Andy Murray to this mix and you can see this sport is taking up its share of the world's oxygen these days.

Fatigue was to be expected, considering what the two finalists had been through to get there. Monfils had won his previous two matches 6-4 in the third, while Djokovic was deep into his second straight full week of play, having beaten Roger Federer in Basel the Sunday before. By the third set yesterday, all of that tennis had taken its toll on the quality of play. After a 43-shot rally to end the second game, both players staggered through a final set that was largely decided by breaks of serve, double faults, missed returns, and exhaustion. 

If they weren’t at their best physically, though, Monfils and Djokovic made up it for it emotionally. After winning a crucial point, the Frenchman would spin, grimace, beat his heart with his racquet, and demand that the Parisian fans get to their feet. For once, one of their tennis players had them under his thumb. At the same time, Djokovic fought—himself, his opponent, the moment—with the life-or-death ferocity that had once made him look like the game’s next No. 1 player. His muscle-straining celebration after match point was memorable because it went beyond joy or relief and into the territory of primal release. That’s the other thing about this generation: The code of gentlemanly behavior no longer precludes wearing your heart way out on your sleeve—or going past your sleeve and pointing to your biceps, if you’re so inclined. And the sport is more colorful for it.

Still, for 45 minutes this match looked like it would have no color at all. Djokovic built a speedy 6-2, 3-0 lead by doing just what he had done the day before to Rafael Nadal: He took the ball early and made changing directions with it look like child’s play. Djokovic didn’t need to take the full-blooded, down-the-line swipes he’s famous for; he kept the pressure on with plenty of margin for error. 

At the same time, Monfils, as is often the case, couldn’t locate the balance between control and aggression. He veered too far in each direction. During his first service game, Monfils rallied passively. On two occasions, Djokovic took advantage of that and pushed him far into his forehand corner. Both times Monfils, rather than sending back something high and safe, let loose with risky down-the-line bullets that ended up in the net. He was broken, the first set was over 15 minutes later, and it looked Djokovic’s momentum from the previous day would be enough to carry him through.

But if Monfils struggles to find a tactical balance, Djokovic struggles to find one mentally. I speculated last week that Grand Slams are difficult for the Serb because over two weeks he expends so much emotionally, goes through so many ups and downs, has to overcome so much frustration, that he can be spent by the semifinals. By Sunday, he was trying to survive another long two weeks, ones in which he had knocked off both Federer and Nadal. He almost didn’t make it. Up a break in each of the last two sets, Djokovic became oddly negative, slump-shouldered, and testy; he’d lost the balance. As the third-set tiebreaker began, he almost looked resigned to defeat. 

This attitude likely came from two factors: (1) Djokovic couldn’t forget the fact that he had lost four Masters finals this year, plus an epic semifinal in a third-set tiebreaker against Nadal in Madrid; and (2) He’s not used to being the clear favorite at this type of tournament. His earlier final-round defeats had come to Nadal (twice), Federer, and Murray. It was hard to imagine either Federer or Nadal, two born front-runners, giving away two big leads in one match to Monfils. This doesn't prove that Djokovic is a choker; rather, it proves how hard it is to win the matches you're supposed to win, and how rare it is to have a guy like Federer who has made it look so routine for so long. Maybe this breakthrough in Paris will make crossing the finish line a little easier for Djokovic in the future. What's more likely, though, is that he'll always struggle to keep his emotions in check.

What does this tournament mean for Monfils? I criticized his flash-over-substance style at the U.S. Open this year, but last week he came as close as he ever has to giving us both. Yes, he went for between-the-legs shots. Yes, he tried his share of jumping forehands. Yes, he threw his arms in the air to get a rise from the crowd at inadvisable moments. And yes, he lost. But his comebacks from the brink on Sunday were impressive and encouraging for two separate reasons. 

In the second set, Monfils found the elusive balance between control and aggression by attacking Djokovic’s short second serves, and by using high-bouncing semi-moonballs to work his way into offensive positions in rallies. The latter, a tactic that tied up Andy Roddick at Roland Garros, is a smart way for Monfils to take advantage of his length and leverage without having to leave his comfort zone on the baseline too soon. Few guys can generate the kind of spin and trajectory that he can; it's time for him to make the most of these assets.

Then, in the third set, just when he looked out of gas and out of the match, Monfils leaned on his first serve to get him to the tiebreaker. With Djokovic shaking his head, I thought we were about to see the emergence of a new Monfils: Gael the survivor, the cagey match player, the winner. Instead, he locked up in the breaker and gave the initiative back to Djokovic. The Frenchman didn’t gag away the tiebreaker, but he suddenly lacked a surefire way to win a point, to work himself forward. When it counted, Monfils lost his balance, while Djokovic found his.

They’ve played better matches, but this tournament was a step forward for each guy. If Monfils can give us this much substance in the future, if he can find his way through the close ones, I won’t complain about the pointless flash, the empty calories anymore—I’ll be able to say “that’s Gael being Gael” with a smile rather than a sigh. And really, would we want to see the guy intentionally not hit a forehand from 10 feet in the air? As for Djokovic, I was heartened, if a little frightened, by the return of his family and their us-against-the-world rooting style in Paris—even his girlfriend looked like she was ready to mix it up. If they keep him this motivated, if he tastes the top again, if he can tip his mental balance from frustration back to the hunger he had in 2007, we won’t have to worry about this generation being too nice. If Djokovic and Monfils keep playing matches like this one in 2010, all we'll have to worry about is that there's enough oxygen around to keep them on their feet.

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