NEW YORK—Rafael Nadal spent Monday evening in a familiar way. He was, as he said later, “trying to find solutions” to the inscrutable man on the other side net, Novak Djokovic. The results of his quest were equally familiar.
Nadal began by moving back. Djokovic ran him side to side and beat him with drop shots. Nadal tried grinding and waiting for errors. Djokovic didn’t give them to him; he worked the points as if he, rather than the famously fit Spaniard, could wait all day. Nadal tried serving harder, into Djokovic’s body. Djokovic slid out of the way and put his returns on the baseline. Nadal tried going into Djokovic’s backhand to open up his forehand side. Djokovic covered the forehand side anyway. Nadal tried upping the pace on his ground strokes. Djokovic returned them with interest. Nadal tried fist pumps, multiple “Vamos!”es, and finally, when all else had failed, a leg kick that brought the better part of 23,000 people to their feet. Djokovic broke him again anyway. In the final set, Nadal tried to make Djokovic, who was walking stiffly from a back strain and leg cramp, bend low and stretch wide. Djokovic, more loose and relaxed after his injury, closed the match with his most dominant stretch of the day. You know things are going well when a bad back only leads you to a new level of excellence. It’s enough to get in a guy’s head.
Those are the two places where Novak Djokovic resides right now: In Rafael Nadal’s head, and at a new peak in his constantly peaking 2011. Djokovic has his first U.S. Open title, his sixth straight final-round win over the world’s second best player, his third Grand Slam of 2011, and he's improved his record to 10-1 against Nadal and Federer this year. It’s been a remarkable and historic season for him in all ways, but what amazes me most at the moment is that, after starting seemingly at the height of his powers in Australia in January, Djokovic has only gotten better from there. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that coming back from two sets and two match points down to beat Roger Federer on a Saturday, and then grinding down the ultimate grinder two days later is going to be a hard act to top. When Djokovic was asked to describe that accomplishment tonight, after his 6-2, 6-4, 6-7 (3), 6-1 win, his eyes went wide and he dropped his arms onto the desk in front of him, as if he’d just realized what he’d just done.
“Right now I’m all positive emotions,” Djokovic said. “It’ll take some time to realize what I’ve done this year.”
It wasn’t just Djokovic who peaked tonight. From an evolution-of-tennis perspective, he also brought the return of serve to a new level of effectiveness and importance. Djokovic broke Nadal a seemingly impossible 11 times, on 26 total break points; each of the first four times that Nadal broke him, Djokovic broke back immediately—it can't get much more demoralizing. Beyond that, Djokovic even began to make game points saved into a stat worth tracking. Time and again, Nadal reached game point; time and again Djokovic, instead of caving in, put his next return on or near the baseline—has there ever been a match in which so many balls landed smack on the line?—and forced Nadal back to deuce. It was almost as if Djokovic was treating his return games like service games, like games he was never out of, and couldn’t afford to lose. I’ve never seen anything like that before. (It should also be noted that Nadal’s serve, as Rafa put it, “worked bad tonight.” There were stretches when he couldn’t break 110 m.p.h.)
You can understand why Nadal looks particularly disgruntled and puzzled when he plays Djokovic these days: No one part of the Serb’s game stands out from the others, and no part, aside from his volley, is below the others—and Djokovic even used his touch volley to end points effectively in this match. These two played here last year, with the reverse four-set result. When Nadal was asked afterward what the biggest difference in Djokovic is from 2010, he said, simply, “Less mistakes. He's enough confident in one more ball, one more ball." When Djokovic was asked the same question, he said the biggest difference was his “attitude.” In the past, he never really believed he was going to beat Federer or Nadal; now he did.
If you watch this year’s final and last year’s back to back, you can see that both explanations are true, and that one leads to the other. In 2010, Djokovic walked around with a bug-eyed look somewhere between uncertainty and mental exhaustion. On many points, he pulled the trigger and launched all-or-nothing bombs—he got a lot of all, but ended the night with nothing. This year, Djokovic never pulled the trigger early. He worked the points, with the knowledge that he could hang with Nadal for as long as it took, and with the confidence that his flatter shots would eventually gain him an advantage. He was right, and that look of uncertainty that haunted him last year didn’t appear until he served for the match at 6-5 in the third. Djokovic was so certain, and made so few mistakes, that he easily climbed out of 0-2 deficits in each of the first two sets.
The second time it took 17 minutes and eight deuces. This was the kind of game that Nadal has used to break his opponents in the past. This time he was broken—his serve was broken, and so was his resolve for the next 20 minutes. Nadal lost that epic game with an overhead that he tried to hit too hard and ended up smashing into the tape. Nadal rarely misses an overhead, or overhits one. It’s a good measure of what Djokovic is doing to him at the moment. Just as Nadal forces Federer to search desperately for answers, while he stays within his basic game, Djokovic sends Nadal on a wild goose chase for “solutions,” while he sticks with his favorite patterns. Just as Nadal’s forehand wears down Federer’s backhand, Djokovic’s forehand eventually wins out over Rafa’s two-hander. Just as Federer, when he plays Nadal, misses shots he doesn’t against anyone else, Nadal overshot the mark on inside-out forehands tonight that he hadn’t missed all tournament, and that would have gone for screaming winners in his last match, against Andy Murray. From Federer to Nadal to Djokovic, it’s a three man head game.
I said yesterday, in talking about Sam Stosur, that it’s satisfying to see a player find herself, surprise herself, get out of her own way, when even she may have thought it was never going to happen. The same has been true for Djokovic in 2011. The guy who we thought was too volatile, too easily frustrated, too prone to doubt, too ready to throw caution to the wind or hit a bail-out drop shot, has transformed himself into a paragon of steadiness on all fronts—the Djoker has grown up and become Mr. One More Ball. Watching him today was to see tennis at it most holistic, as a package rather than a group of individual strokes or weapons or weaknesses. Whether it’s doing the spectacular, like hitting a backhand return crosscourt for a winner while lunging to his left in the ad court, or the routine, like working his opponent into his backhand corner and then finding the open court up the line, Djokovic is making it all look easy right now—everything looks safe. His lack of Federer-esque showiness only adds to the impression of easy efficiency.
By now, Djokovic even seems to have the tennis gods, those longtime partisans of Federer and Nadal, on his side. In the semis, Djokovic risked it all on match point and found the line. In the fourth set of the final, with his back hurting, he slowed his first serves into the 90s. You might have thought that Nadal would have feasted on those soft balls, but he was taken by surprise and never did anything with them.
Djokovic wrapped up the last major of the year by totally perplexing the two best players of the era. Federer said he “couldn’t understand” how Djokovic could play that laser return at match point. Nadal claims that he's tried everything this year against him and nothing has worked. Djokovic may nor may not be having the best year in men's tennis history. He said tonight that, even at 64-2, he doesn’t feel “invincible” out there. So let’s try a different word. With a return as good as a serve, defense that functions like offense, an airtight game and a gambler's soul, the 2011 Novak Djokovic has been unfathomable.