Out of Remission

Thursday, September 16, 2010 /by

104107413

by Pete Bodo

So you think Andy Roddick has had it tough, being denied an almost certain Wimbledon title and pehaps another U.S. Open championship as well. Well, it might be cold comfort but consider the plight of Novak Djokovic. Like Roddick, he's been stuck and spinning his wheels with one major title to his name (Australia 2008). But unlike Roddick, Djokovic is an all-purpose—or, all-surface—threat whose next Grand Slam title is just as likely to be captured on the red clay of Paris as on the verdant lawn at Wimbledon.

The just completed U.S. Open final accurately framed his dilemma; he wants to win, he's ready to win, but then...up pops Roger Federer. And if it's not Federer, it's Rafael Nadal, who's more of a contemporary of Djokovic's than of Roddick's. Roddick had one iconic player with whom to grapple even under the conditions most favorable to his game; Djokovic has two.

I'm not sure that, until the early stages of the fourth set on Monday, I've ever seen a Grand Slam loser play as boldy and courageously as Djokovic did against Nadal (well, there was that Federer-Roddick final at a Rafa-less Wimbledon in 2009...) Nor have I seen a truly great effort buried so deeply under the volumes of earned praise heaped upon the victor. Sorry, Novak, wrong place, wrong time. If it's any consolation, Roddick and Andy Murray often experience much the same problem.

Still... Everything was working for Nadal in the final. He's never played better on his least favorite surface, and were not for a newly developed serving superiority he still might have been in trouble. That's because Djokovic played remarkably positive tennis. And the adjective is the operative word for our purposes.

The narrative that emerged over the past few years has cast Djokovic—the ultra-talented, curiously personable Serb (has anyone from his part of the world seemed simultaneously so "exotic" and so familiar to us?)—as a perpetual semifinalist or quarterfinalist at the majors. The guy who, having already earned national hero status in his homeland, could certainly pick up the odd Masters 1000 title here and there. But he was soft at the majors. Sometimes, he seemed too preoccupied with entertaining the crowd and acting as an unofficial ambassador for his nation to pose a serious threat to Federer or Nadal.

But let's remember, 2009 U.S. Open champion Juan Martin del Potro is the only man other than Djokovic to have won a major since Djokovic first played one (Australian Open 2005). It's a mind-boggling statistic, and enough to tempt any player to fling up his hands and say, To hell with it, I'm just going to have a good time and pick off whatever low-hanging fruit comes my way. I'm serious when I say that Federer and Nadal may have inadvertently ruined any number of otherwise impressive men. After you spend a few years in chains, you might find their rattle musical.

But on the floor of Arthur Ashe Stadium the other night, Djokovic suggested that he wants to cast off those shackles. He often outmatched Nadal in force of shot, and he managed to look—accurately—as a man both confident and fighting for his life. At times, the grunt accompanying his swing was almost otherworldly, more evocative of a death rattle or cry of anguish than the pleasantly guttural exclamation of a guy doing his job with complete attention and effort. More than once, he loaded up and tagged that forehand in a manner that made me think, Surely, this is the last tennis shot this guy will ever hit, and he's determined to go down in a blaze of glory and self-destructive abandon.

Yet those balls continually fell inside the lines. Djokovic made Nadal's life very uncomfortable for three-plus sets at the National Tennis Center.

You could put this heroic, almost Wagnerian degree of effort expended by Djokovic down to desperation. That extra day of rest he earned via the postponement of the final because of rain on Sunday was a godsend. But it's all relative. As many players have shown, the effects of a tough, emotional five-setter in New York aren't wiped away in fewer than 48 hours (just think about Fernando Verdasco, playing his semifinal against Nadal). Djokovic insisted after the final that he felt fine, physically, but I suspect that after the win over Federer, his emotions took charge and demanded that his body—the corporeal realities—stay out of it. But they never do. He was, in my view, more tired than he knew, but men are capable of doing extraordinary things when properly motivated.

I wrote yesterday about Nadal's forehand. But in the final, Djokovic hit one more winner (he had 22) off that wing than did Nadal. Nadal hit 12 backhand winners, to Djokovic's 9, giving Nadal a slight edge in the winner count (49 to 45). The key statistic was unforced errors: Djokovic had 47, Nadal just 32. So Nadal finished with a +18 net in the error-to-winner ratio, while Djokovic ended up -2. But the most important thing this tells you is that Djokovic was more inclined to swing for the winners.

The most startling element in the match was the way Djokovic played when he found himself in a do-or-die situation. He converted three out of the only four break points he held—a tribute to his courage as well as to Nadal's talent for taking care of his serve. Nadal, by contrast, converted a dismal six of 26 break points. But nobody who watched the match would call Nadal to the carpet for that 23 percent break-point conversion rate. Djokovic played so well with his back to the wall that Nadal was moved to joke about the trouble he experienced breaking serve.

"In the statistics of the ATP I was No. 1 in break points converted," Nadal said, grinning. "So I think after this tournament I don't want to [he meant "won't"] be No. 1 on the break points converted."

All this must have been a bitter potion for Djokovic to digest, but he took it like a man. The good news is that in the latter stages of the tournament, Djokovic played anything like the perpetual semifinalist. I had to ask him if he felt as if he reinvented himself. He replied: "I've played the best tennis certainly in the last seven, eight months, maybe the whole year... I feel much more comfortable on the court, more confident, and getting this aggressive game back, the game I need to have in order to stay at the top, and a game that has been a part of me, always."

A part of him, yes, but sometimes in remission. It was nice to see it back.

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