Is Nole in Rafa's Game?

by: Peter Bodo | January 30, 2012

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by Pete Bodo

One of the ranking theories of superiority, especially in head-to-head results, generates from a fundamental disbelief that player A can and should regularly beat player B.

Then, when player B whups up on player A in what some—mostly rabid fans of, and apologists for, player A—insist is an extra-athletic or meta-strategic way, player B is said to "be in player A's head."

The assumption, tacit though it may be, is that there's no way player Rafael Nadal ought to beat Rog. . . whoops. . . no way player B ought to beat player A—all other things being equal. For it's plain as the nose on his face that compared to player B, player A clearly is one or more of the following: a) more talented; b) has a better game; c) is a better competitor; d) is a finer athletic specimen.

Therefore, the only reason player B has surprised us with those wins over player A is that the winner is "in his head." He has some kind of inexplicable psychological power over player A, or player B somehow represents the authoritarian father to whom player A still feels inferior, etc. etc.

You know: John McEnroe was in Bjorn Borg's head. Pete Sampras was in Andre Agassi's head, Michael Stich was in Boris Becker's head, Nadal was in Roger Federer's head, Novak Djokovic is in Rafa's head. 

But it's surprising how this "in his head" business is almost always just an early-stage phenomenon, and over time it becomes clear that either player B has either moved from A's brain into his game, or we never really wanted to believe, or couldn't see, that player B simply was a lot better than we thought. Or he got a lot better, unexpectedly. Then it's legitimate to wonder, was it really that player B was in player A's head, or is it just that we didn't appreciate the quality, or potential quality, of B's game.

Suddenly, the idea that player B is in player A's head seems stupendously irrelevant. 

This was the case with in the rivalry between Federer and Nadal, and Sunday showed that it probably is the case with Nadal and Djokovic. Before the Australian Open, you could probably fly that "in his head" business by lots of people, and perhaps even Rafa and/or Nole bought into it.

But you can throw it now, even if there's still a real chance that Nadal can re-tool (as he promises to do in an otherwise quiet month of February). We saw last Sunday that there are specific, clear, identifiable reasons for why Djokovic can handle Nadal just fine without having to crawl into Rafa's earhole.

(For more on Djokovic's superiority, also check out my post from earlier today over ESPN.)

1. Djokovic, by virtue of his diet, his constitution, his will, whatever.  . . is superior to Nadal in the fitness department. This is something that no one expected, partly because Nadal's game appears so much more physical, right down to his leaping air punches.

But the signs that in his own quiet way Nole is Rafa's equal in stamina were there as early as last April, when Djokovic backed up his win over Nadal at Indian Wells in a physical, three-set win in Miami. You can revisit that match in my Bare-Knickle Tennis post of the time.

While both men were shaky near the end of the battle of Melbourne, Djokovic seemed the one more able to play aggressive tennis, which suggests that he was better able to muster the energy to finish the task at hand. Both men are incredibly fit, but Djokovic's reservoir seems deeper. 

2. In a comparison of backhands and how they are deployed, Nadal's looks woefully undergunned. That slice with which he buys time and/or treads water may work against lesser opponents, but it allows Djokovic to take the initiative in rallies with impunity.

Nadal, to his credit, knows he needs to be more forceful and aggressive with his backhand and tried to pull it off at times; he will presumably continue working on it. But Djokovic's backhand is a fully-realized thing of beauty—and menace.

3. Court position is as critical in tennis as field position is in NFL football, and it's the easiest thing to overlook when the boys are trading topspin shots that makes it look more like they're playing with kittens than optic yellow tennis balls. Djokovic is superb at winning the court position battle—partly because he innately knows how important it is.

One of the major distinguishing characteristics between a clay-court and hard-court player (although court position certainly counts on all surfaces) is this awareness of how much there is to gain by playing "inside" the court, especially if you can effectively take the ball on the rise. Nadal's early superiority on clay has hurt ability to play on or inside the baseline in the manner of a great hard-court player like Djokovic (or an Agassi or Connors). Aside: perhaps developing his game on clay in Spain has also hurt Andy Murray in this regard.

4. Djokovic's service return is a remarkable asset. Nadal put it best after the match when he told the world press: "Is something unbelievable how he (Djokovic) returns, no? His return probably is one of the best of the history. That's my opinion, no? I never played against a player who's able to return like this. Almost every time." 'Nuf said.

5. Second-serve conversion rate. In the final Down Under, Djokovic's winning percentage on first and second serves were, respectively, 68 and 63 percent, while Nadal's were 66-45. It was the most telling stat of the day, and it helps explain how Djokovic managed to allow Nadal just six break points while accumulating a whopping 20 of his own (one of the few bright spots for Nadal: He converted four of those six, while Djokovic was successful on just seven of 20).

Granted, this could change; wasn't it just 18 or so months ago that Djokovic had trouble finding the box with his serve?  But that was then and this is now—a now that has lasted for over a year and five Grand Slam events. The reality is that Djokovic doesn't even need to be in Nadal's head. He's established himself successfully in Nadal's game. 

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