“That was the most physical tennis match I’ve ever seen.” This was the refrain I heard from many fans after the U.S. Open men’s final. Looking at it again, it also might have been the noisiest—or maybe just the best miked—men’s match of all time. Grunts rise and fall from both guys over a steady, hard-working backbeat of sneaker squeaks. In these 14 minutes of tightly edited highlights, the 7th-best match of 2011 looks and sounds like one massive, exhausting barrage of slugging and running. It wasn’t a competitive thriller, and two of the sets weren’t close at all, but the rallies have an awesome brutality to them.
—Nadal’s Uncle Toni said after this match that his nephew had been nervous during both the Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals against Djokovic. He knows best, obviously, but the feeling I had was that Rafa went in to each of those matches determined to be aggressive, started well, but when Djokovic hung in and got his nose in front, he quickly became resigned. The memories of his previous four losses to the Serb this year were too fresh to put aside. At Wimbledon, Nadal lost a close first set and then got blown out in the second. At the Open, he went out to a 2-0 lead in both the first and second sets, but once Djokovic settled in, Nadal didn’t have any answers. He lost the next six games of first set. We’re not used to see that kind of dominating run against Rafa. To me, it looked less like nerves than it did lack of belief, along with a dreaded sense of “here were go again.” Those two things will get you down.
—So what changed between the 2010 U.S. Open, which Nadal won in four sets over Djokovic, and 2011, which Djokovic won in four sets over Nadal? There are some fundamental differences: Nadal’s serve was much better in last year’s match, and Djokovic’s serve and forehand were shakier. But looking at clips of the 2010 version, what sticks out to me is the way Djokovic approaches the points, both between them and during them. Between points, he’s bug-eyed, like a man who’s pushing uphill and just trying to survive out there; he doesn’t seem to believe he’s actually going to beat Nadal, who was No. 1 in the world and coming off two straight Slam titles. During the points, Djokovic takes more risks, from riskier, off-balance positions, than we saw from him in 2011—sometime he connects, sometimes he doesn’t.
In this year’s Open final, by contrast, he’s calm and purposeful throughout, or at least until he tightens up a little at the end of the third set. And he doesn’t launch bombs too early in the rallies. He’s consistent and confident enough that he can wait and work the point until he has a high-percentage shot before he pulls the trigger. After the match, Nadal said that the biggest difference was that Djokovic could make “one more ball” now. That had always been Rafa’s trump card; in 2011, the Djoker trumped him back (or “called his bluff “or “drew an ace,” or some card-playing metaphor that I can’t think of right now).
—Technically, the biggest advantage that Djokovic has over Nadal is on the backhand side. Watching from the sidelines that afternoon, it was easy to see how much more effortless pace Djokovic gets with that shot than Rafa does. That’s the trump card; he has two equally dangerous weapons, where Nadal has one. You can see Rafa, as this match progresses, try to drive his backhand more, and he does. He comes up with a brilliant one-two-punch to win the final point of the third set.
But even when he hits it well as he can, Djokovic is there. On the last point of the second set, Nadal snaps a backhand return at a sharp crosscourt angle, but Djokovic reaches out and sends a forehand winner down the line for what the commentator calls, “another miracle forehand.” And when Djokovic needs a point, such as when he’s serving down 15-40 in the fourth game of the match, he goes right at Nadal’s backhand.
By the end of the first set, Djokovic is absolutely firing his own backhand, with total confidence, for brazen winners to the corners. He’s hitting it like a second forehand. Even when Nadal’s backhand has been at its best—see 2008 French Open and Wimbledon—it has never been that type of shot.
—Another, less-talked-about play of Djokovic’s that defined his improvement for me was his drop shot. It used to be a bail-out play, something he did when he wanted to get a rally over with one way or another, and he dumped it into the net a lot. Not this year. He has enough confidence in it against Nadal here to hit it from behind his own baseline, and hit it for winners.
—Nadal defended his season after this match by saying that he may have lost to Djokovic in all of those finals, but he was proud that he kept getting to them, that he was always “there.” And while he ended up having a “down" year for him, I didn’t notice much of a drop in his level play overall. He won the French Open, went 3-1 against Federer, and came into both the Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals after hammering world No. 4 Andy Murray.
One point here may sum up Nadal’s season. At 2-2 in the second set, when he was still very much in the match, he ran Djokovic all over the court and earned an easy overhead. This is his bread-and-butter shot, but he tried to hit it too hard and drilled it into the tape. It was almost as if the man who's most famous for his effort was trying too hard to beat Djokovic.
But while he never found an answer, credit Nadal for starting each set like he was starting the match all over. He won the first two games of the first set, the first two games of the second, and made one final stand in the third, the only one that succeeded.
—Still, as well as Rafa played in that third set, Djokovic still managed to serve for it at 6-5. You don’t see it here, but he got nervous, and Nadal played an inpsired game and tiebreaker. I thought it was fortunate for Djokovic that he hurt his back when he did. It allowed him to play a little more freely in the fourth set, to go for his shots as if he had just a little less to lose, and he nailed them. Even with the Djoker hobbling and throwing in his first serve at 90 m.p.h., a weary Nadal had no answers for his tormentor. If you can wear Rafa out, you deserve to win.
—It was interesting to talk to Nadal fans after this match. Most of them thought that Rafa hadn’t played well. They wondered why he didn’t do this, why he didn’t do that, why he didn’t get more aggressive, why he couldn’t hold serve, etc. I tried to remind them that Djokovic had a say in the matter, but it was still unbelievable to them that he could really beat Rafa so many times in a row. It gave me sense of déjà vu, back to four and five years ago when Roger Federer's fans said the same thing about their man after he lost to Nadal. Why doesn’t Roger come to the net? Why doesn't he go for his return? Why doesn't he do this? Why doesn't do that? Well, it wasn’t that easy, and we found out that Nadal wasn't just any old opponent. This year we saw the same situation, with Rafa on the losing end; he struggled to turn the tide against Djokovic, but he never did. Sometimes the other guy really is that good. Sometimes he makes one more ball than you.