Rafael Nadal left New York almost a year ago today riding the crest of a wave of sentiment, respect and appreciation. Though only 24, he had just completed his career Grand Slam. Never mind Roger Federer and his record 16 Grand Slam singles titles—was it possible that Nadal, with his superior head-to-head record (14-8 vs. Federer at the time, but with three additional wins in 2011), is a better candidate for recognition as the GOAT (Greatest of All-Time)?
Remember that famous Mats Wilander quote: “How can he (Federer) be the greatest ever if there’s a guy (Nadal) he can’t beat regularly in his own time?”
Those words, once so intoxicating for Nadal fans, have come back to haunt. For Novak Djokovic, whom Nadal will play for the U.S. Open title, has owned Nadal this year.
It all started on the cement in the U.S., where Djokovic shocked the tennis community by triumphing over Nadal in back-to-back Masters finals early this year. Djokovic carried his form over to the red clay that Nadal has ruled for so many years, performing a feat that, as little as six months earlier, many would have deemed impossible. He mastered Nadal in back-to-back finals on red clay, in Madrid and Rome.
By Wimbledon time, Nadal was in utter psychological retreat, and it showed in the grass-court final: Djokovic hammered him in four sets, just days after moving ahead of Nadal into the official world No. 1 ranking.
If ever a tournament had “last stand” written all over it, it’s this one.
If Nadal can halt the Djokovic juggernaut here on the hard courts of Flushing Meadows, he’ll have gone a long way to applying significant balm to a gaping wound. Djokovic has had a career year, losing just two matches thus far (he’s a stupendous 63-2), but that undeniable day-in, day-out excellence will pale slightly if Nadal can finish 1-1 with Djokovic in 2011 Grand Slam encounters and hold him to just two Grand Slam titles (in addition to Wimbledon, Djokovic won the Australian Open).
But if Djokovic records his sixth consecutive win over Nadal, he’ll be well on his way to finishing as good (or better) a year than either of his two main rivals (Nadal and Federer) have had thus far—and at 24, Djokovic is the youngest of the three.
This is indeed a remarkable time in men’s tennis, even if the Grand Slam performance numbers have been inflated by the parity the Australian Open has attained with the other majors (it wasn’t so long ago that players like John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors didn’t even bother to play the first Grand Slam event of the year, thus significantly reducing their career-majors total).
The Nadal-Federer rivalry has attained something like Laver-Rosewall or Sampras-Agassi status, yet it may not be the one that tennis historians will obsess over in years to come. That honor may be reserved for the Nadal vs. Djokovic competition, which in many ways is a better conceived one.
For one thing, Federer is five years older than Nadal—an enormous difference in tennis. For another, Nadal’s head-to-superiority is somewhat qualified by the fact that for all the problems Federer has had with Nadal on red clay, he at least established himself as the clear No. 2 on the surface and often reached the final, opposite Nadal. The same could not be said for Nadal on hard courts or grass for too long a time in their history.
Federer and Nadal have met 25 times; it’s an impressive number and a tribute to both men, but the Nadal vs. Djokovic rivalry has already eclipsed that. They’ve played 28 matches, a mind-boggling number when you consider that they’re within a year of each other age-wise. Which brings us to one of the other issues looming over the men’s final. Unless Nadal figures out a way to beat Djokovic again, the competition may peter out and lose some of its appeal. It’s simple: Nadal must stop the bleeding.
Nadal fans can take some comfort from the fact that their hero had five consecutive wins over Djokovic between the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2009 Madrid semis. So if Djokovic was able to suck it up and turn the tables on Nadal, perhaps the 10-time Grand Slam titlist can also find his way out of the psychological woods.
The keys to the match will be how well Nadal serves, because he needs to keep Djokovic from taking control of the rallies. That was the outstanding element in Nadal’s victory over Djokovic last year. Also, Nadal will be best served if he can make Djokovic run; the No. 1 player is a monster, fitness-wise, but that grueling, emotional five-set win over Federer on Friday will still be felt in his legs.
Djokovic needs to return with authority, and he’ll really help his own cause if he can get free points on his own service games. Having developed into one of the most spectacular shotmakers in tennis history, Djokovic should strive to keep the pressure on Nadal—get into his head by essentially letting his strokes say: You can run, but you can’t hide.
The Pick: Djokovic.