As he walked out to play the final of the 1980 U.S. Open, Bjorn Borg had won 13 straight five-set matches dating back over four years. By all appearances, the Angelic Assassin, His Iciness, was unbeatable in the game's paramount test of nerve. Appearances were deceiving. That day John McEnroe beat him 6-4 in the fifth. Afterward, the journalist Richard Evans wrote that he believed that Borg, “by the infinitesimal standards by which we judge great champions,” wouldn’t be quite the same again. His aura of silent intimidation had been punctured. Evans was right. McEnroe would overtake him for No. 1 the following year.
This spring, while watching Rafael Nadal lose a third-set tiebreaker to Novak Djokovic in Key Biscayne, Evans’ words came to my mind. The situation wasn’t as dramatic, and certainly not as permanent—Nadal isn’t going to retire in a year the way Borg did. But I felt like I had seen something analagous. At a point when I was sure Nadal would win, at the point when he always wins, he lost. He got worse as the tiebreaker went on, while Djokovic, who had succumbed in many close matches like this one to Nadal in the past, was the one who hit bigger and better. It was a hot day, one where you would have expected the old Nole, the physically fragile Nole, to wilt while the old Rafa, the mentally and physically impervious Rafa, ground him down. The opposite happened.
On Sunday the scene had shifted to Madrid, but the expectations were the same. It may have been hot in Miami, but this was clay, this was Spain, this was Rafa-time. Again the opposite happened. Again Djokovic won, this time in even more convincing fashion, in straight sets and no tiebreakers. What was most impressive of all, though, and one that must be worrying to Nadal—Rafa was clearly, and rightly, not pleased with the proceedings afterward—was the way in which Djokovic beat him. As usual the Serb dictated the rallies; as usual he controlled points with his backhand and used the down the line to brilliant effect; as usual he was the one playing from farther up in the court. He’s done all of those things in the past, even on clay, in Hamburg in 2008 and Madrid two years ago, and still come out the loser. What was different this time was that Djokovic also beat Nadal at his own game. He won his fair share of the long, grinding, neutral rallies that normally go to Nadal. He won without having to take big risks.
This match began with Djokovic knocking off seemingly effortless winners to go up 3-0. He made it look simple. Using his backhand like a normal player’s forehand, he punched the ball cleanly crosscourt into Nadal’s forehand, then took the short response up the line. But that’s exactly the way both the Hamburg and Madrid matches had begun. In those, Nadal was able to weather the early storm, hit his forehand a little more heavily, and eventually move Djokovic farther off the court on his backhand side, making that shot tougher to hit for winners. Djokovic eventually began to net them. This time, Nadal went back at the backhand time and again, but he couldn’t push Djokovic off the baseline or wide of the sideline.
Nadal has said that, unlike with Federer, he doesn’t have a go-to strategy. There’s no obvious weaker side, no obvious place to hit, no simple dynamic he can set up and count on. Near the end of the first, after trying to break down the Djokovic backhand, Nadal seemed to have found answer when he switched up on a couple points and sent his forehand to Djokovic’s forehand. He broke serve for the first time. But it was never going to be as simple as hitting the ball to Djokovic’s forehand. That shot is much improved, almost as much improved as his serve. It doesn’t break down the way it could in the past, and today, while his backhand did the majority of the damage, it was his high, heavy, safe crosscourt forehand that kept Nadal pinned back on his backhand side. Just as Nadal likes getting rallies going from his forehand to Federer’s backhand, Djokovic seemed happy to take up his forehand against Nadal’s backhand and wait for something short. Djokovic is consistent enough to wait Nadal out now, something that has rarely, if ever, been true for an opponent of Rafa’s on clay.
How to explain Djokovic’s newfound solidity? It’s not as if he’s suddenly been practicing his shots differently. It comes from two things. Being fit enough to hang in rallies and hit the ball as crisply on the 15th shot as you did on the first. More important, it’s knowing you can do that. This make you less likely to pull the trigger early in a rally instead of waiting for the right moment. It was interesting, I thought, that the one time when Djokovic really got upset with himself—and it wasn’t on a crucial point—was when he felt like he gone for an all-out forehand winner too early in a rally and missed it long. Beyond just greater patience, though, this felt like a master class in the Djokovician—he hurt Nadal with his return, he punched his forehand inside-out for winners, he went to the body effectively with his serve, and he covered the court like nobody has since . . . Rafael Nadal.
OK, now for the “yes, but,” “ok, sure,” “let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” “don’t overreact to one match,” "you're an idiot if you think Nadal is done," section of the article. I get it. This was Madrid, where the ball flies, the clay is hard, and Nadal has lost to Federer and nearly lost to Djokovic. This is Madrid, where matches are two-out-of-three instead of three-out-of-five, as in Paris. This is also a one-week event, not a two-weeker. Djokovic has shown a tendency in the past to burn himself out by the latter stages of Slams. Nadal knows exactly how to win in Paris, Djokovic doesn’t. And despite his 32-match win streak, there were signs of nerves from Djokovic as he tried to close out the first set.
As for Nadal, I thought he stuck with the high, heavy, crosscourt forehand too long and played too far behind the baseline today. (Contrary to popular opinion, though, court positioning often isn’t by choice—sometimes you just keep finding yourself pushed into worse spots. It’s not simply a matter of saying, “Now I’m going to stand closer to the baseline.”) When Nadal has beaten Djokovic, he has stretched him on his backhand side and found the corner up the line with his own forehand.
What Nadal also done in the past is grind a less fit and less consistent Djokovic into the dust. Rafa has won the neutral rallies and not made the unforced errors. Today, with a chance to break at 2-2, 30-30, with a hint of hope in the Madrid air, Nadal made two basic backhand errors. A few games later, at match point, the two players engaged in another long, arduous rally. Nadal tried forehands inside-out, forehands inside-in, backhand drives, and backhand slices. Djokovic got them all back, until the point and the match ended with a routine Nadal backhand floating an inch wide.
The standards by which we define champions are, as Richard Evans said, infinitesimal, and I’m sure Nadal will be judged a champion by those standards many more times in the future. But that point, and this match, marked the second time in two months against Nadal that Djokovic has taken a signature advantage of his opponent’s—first, the ability to up his level at the crucial moment; second, the ability to win with patience—and made it his own.