"Everything You Can Imagine"

Sunday, January 29, 2012 /by

NdMELBOURNE—Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal hugged, loosely and wearily, in front of the umpire’s chair at 1:37 A.M. on Monday morning in Rod Laver Arena. Nadal had already walked around the net post and was heading for his sideline bench. When they let each other go, Djokovic turned around and tore off his shirt as he walked, screaming, toward his player’s box. A few seconds later, Nadal took his shirt off as well, and began searching for another in his racquet bag. It made sense: The two players had already stripped everything from each other, physically, emotionally, and every other way, over the previous six hours.

“It was obvious to everyone,” the winner said later, “that we had taken every last drop of energy from our bodies.”

Djokovic clenched his fists as he looked up to his delirious coach and girlfriend. Cameramen scrambled across the arena and surrounded them. Thousands of people in the crowd craned their necks to watch. Nadal, who was in the dark on the other side of the court—the lights had begun to dim for the trophy ceremony—kept his back turned to the scene as he put on another shirt. Finally he had to sneak a peak; he turned and watched Djokovic for a second. Nadal had celebrated wins like this many times before, and he knew he could so easily have been doing it again at that moment. You could have forgiven him for thinking back to a simple passing shot he had missed when he was ahead in the fifth set. You could have forgiven him for wanting to walk straight out of the stadium and leave this long night of effort, one of his greatest, behind. After all of that effort, nearly six hours of it, it brought him nothing but defeat.

Later, though, as he spoke to the press, it was clear that Nadal hadn’t been crushed by it. It wasn’t the loss that was foremost in his mind. It was the moment, the evening, the match, the feeling of being part of something special, of rising to his opponent's challenge, that he talked about, and that lifted him.

“This match is gonna be in my mind,” said Nadal afterward, “not because I lost, but because of the way we played. . . . It was nice to be there, fighting.”

This was how the 2012 Australian Open men's final ended, with talk from both players of the match itself, of the pleasure of the effort, rather than of victory or defeat. Of course, that doesn’t mean Djokovic, who belted out “Highway to Hell” in the players’ lounge later, wasn’t happy he won.

*****

Here’s the question: What, in its 5 hours and 53 minutes, did Djokovic vs. Nadal not have? I think I’ve got it narrowed down: There weren’t any tweeners. Actually, no, I’m not going to say that. I did turn my head away a couple of times. I’ll bet each of them put one right on the baseline while I wasn’t looking. After tonight, there’s obviously nothing these guys can’t do on a tennis court.

The match was the longest in Aussie Open history, and the longest Grand Slam final ever. As Djokovic said later, it had "everything you can imagine." There are a lot of ways to understand this one, too many for me to try to weave them all together right now (it’s 6:00 in the morning). Here are five; I'll take them one at a time.

*****

As proof that the old Nole can win big, too

Last year, we said Djokovic won because he was fitter and calmer. He had more belief; the old, edgy, pull-the-trigger-at-the-first-sign-of-trouble Nole had been left behind. He won because he had grown up.

Except that this past week, the old edgy, heavy-breathing, trigger-pulling Nole returned. And he still won.

Any tennis instructor trying to teach a young player the value of positive body language must have cringed at Djokovic’s performances this week. The Serb began matches talking to himself and his friends, throwing his hands in the air when he missed, and shuffling to the sidelines with his head down in exhaustion and pain. Djokovic puts all of his troubles out there for his opponent, and the world, to see.

And that’s also how he gets rid of them. It’s as Djokovic must have something go wrong, as it did in the first set tonight, before he can relax, forget about the pressure and the setting, and let loose. After five games, Djokovic was already on his third racquet (he didn’t like the string jobs) and his second shirt. By the start of the second set, though, he was at his ease in rallies, breathing fine, and pumping himself up. By the third set he was pouncing on everything in sight. It’s nice to know: Nole—who won the semis and final 7-5 in the fifth set—can be himself, neuroses and ailments and vulnerabilities and all, and still win.

*****

As another example of the eerie mirror image between Djokovic-Nadal and Nadal-Federer

The “trivalry” between these three shows us again how much of tennis is about matchups, about how two players’ games, and heads, uniquely interact.

Nadal uses his high, heavy, lefty forehand to Federer’s one-handed backhand as his fail-safe backup; Djokovic uses his high, heavy, forehand to Nadal’s weaker backhand as his fail-safe backup.

Against Djokovic, Nadal, so sure of his game plan against Federer, appears to have little idea how to construct points or where to start. Rafa can’t identify a weak spot, because there isn’t one. In some ways, Djokovic, who is best on hard courts and whose shots move through the court much more easily, reveals Nadal as the clay-court specialist he once was.

Nobody can exploit Nadal's biggest weakness, his serve, like Djokovic, who owns the best return in the game. Rafa was so amazed by this shot that he burst out in praise of it tonight, without being asked. "Is something unbelievable how he returns, no? His return is probably one of the best of history."

When Federer plays Nadal, Federer’s fans ask, “Why isn’t he more aggressive? Why doesn’t he do this, or that, or something else?” It looks like he should be winning. When Nadal plays Djokovic, Nadal’s fans ask the same exasperated questions. It’s not so easy. Djokovic hits with deceptive weight and accuracy, and he’s better than anyone at forcing Nadal to hit to his backhand. He’s always going to have the advantage when he does that. When Nadal plays Federer, he can play his game, while his opponent must find a solution. When Nadal plays Djokovic, the roles are reversed. It's Nole's who's comfortable, and Rafa who's searching.

There is one area of similarity: After this match, Rafa and Nole will likely be elevated to must-see rivalry status, next to Rog and Rafa, something that wasn't necessarily true when Djokovic owned him last year. (Nadal was just happy that he gave him a better run tonight than he did in 2011.) Djokovic may have joined the brand-name rivalry club tonight. We've had Fedal; this was the best of Rafole.

*****

As proof that we can still relate to the world’s best tennis players

It’s been theorized that fewer people play tennis than they once did because they're disconnected from what the pros are doing—it’s like a different sport. But anyone can relate to what each player went through tonight when they had the match on their racquet. Each of them blew it once; one of them was lucky enough to get a second chance.

Djokovic tightened up in the fourth set. He was ahead 4-3 and was up 0-40 on Nadal’s serve. This looked like the end. For three sets, Djokovic had been dominant; I had never seen Nadal as despondent as he was when he lost the third set. But he got the score back to 30-40, and Djokovic, who had been ripping backhand returns all night, suddenly guided this one back safely. He lost the point and the game. The set went to a tiebreaker. Djokovic went up 5-3; again it looked like the end. Then, two points from the title, he proceeded to send a forehand wide, another into the net, and another wide to lose the set.

Now it was Nadal’s turn. With Djokovic reeling and the crowd pushing him forward, Rafa went ahead 4-2 and 30-15 on his serve. Djokovic came to the net and popped up a sitter volley. Nadal closed, with an open court down the line. He pushed it wide. The crowd couldn't believe it; they cheered as if it had been in. Rafa challenged, but it was hopeless. He nervously lost that game and all of his momentum with it. Normally, Nadal hits bravely in the clutch moments—his career five-set record was 15-3 coming in. But this time he retreated. His second serve floated, and he moved back to where he’s always been comfortable, behind the baseline. His defense from there was incredible, but, again, it was the wrong matchup. Djokovic controlled the rallies in the last three games. There were some shaky moments, including a botched overhead, but he didn’t choke twice.

*****

RnAs a testament to both players’ fighting spirits

We won’t remember the nerves in this one; we’ll remember the fight to rise above them. Nadal has won on willpower dozens, if not hundreds of times, before. This time Nadal was trapped, cornered, for three sets; every step forward was followed by a setback, every winner by an error. But he survived the fourth set.

Djokovic’s steely moment was less obvious but ultimately more important. At 4-4 in the fifth set, he had a break point for a chance to serve it out, but he ended up losing a long game. After the changeover, and after five hours of play, he came out fresh, smacking the ball as hard and confidently and accurately as he had all day. He won the last three games. While Rafa retreated, it was Nole, the Nole who was so overwrought to start, who kept his head at the end.

As for shot-making, their seemed to be a million balls hit in this one, and you may have your personal favorite. Here are two of mine. Djokovic reaching out with one hand on his backhand side and poking a seemingly sure Nadal winner onto the sideline, then finishing the point by going behind Nadal with a curling forehand—athleticism and élan in one. The Nadal shot I remember most was a jumping tomahawk forehand that seemed to be hit after he’d done a 360 in the air, early in the fifth set—an example of how he would leave no stone unturned, or shot untried, tonight.

*****

As a testament to the sportsmanship of the era

I felt bad for Rafa as he shook hands with Djokovic. I wondered how he would get that missed pass out of his mind. I wondered if he would break down in tears on the trophy stand.

We got none of that. What we got instead were words that spoke to why you play the sport in the first place—for matches like this, even when you lose them. In my favorite moment of the evening, Rafa raised and shook his second-place plate with a sad pride.

“When you are with passion for the game,” Nadal said, “when you are ready to compete, you are able to suffer and enjoy suffering, no?"

But it isn’t just a feeling you have on a tennis court, and it isn’t something, in Rafa’s mind, that only star athletes can understand. It’s there for anyone who tries for something greater.

“I don’t know if I express it very well,” he went on, “but is something that maybe you understand. So today I had this feeling, and is really a good one. I enjoyed. I suffered during the match, but I enjoyed all the troubles that I had during all the match.

“I enjoyed. I tried to be there, to find solutions all the time. I played a lot with my heart and lot with my mind, that’s something that is nice to be around, and [it’s not just about] tennis.”

Djokovic was gracious in his own press conference. He said that “both of them should have won.” But his best moment came on the winner’s stand. Nole took the trophy with a small, serious smile and immediately turned back to Rafa to congratulate him. Djokovic had made a lot of great moves on this night, but none was better or more appropriate than this one. He congratulated Nadal in the only way that made sense for this match, which was about sports as much as it was about players:

“We made history.”

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