by Pete Bodo
Can a single point, or series of points, have a career-shaping influence on a player? Guillermo Coria might say so, for he'll forever wonder what might have been had he converted either of those two match points he held against Gaston Gaudio in the 2004 French Open final. You'll remember that the loss appeared to have a devastating effect on Coria, and played a role in driving him into a premature retirement.
Andy Roddick also might think so, looking back on that volley he missed on set point in the second-set tiebreaker of his 2009 Wimbledon final against Roger Federer. Had he made that shot, Roddick would have been up two-sets-to-none on a day when his serve was outstanding. Instead, Federer went on to win the tiebreaker and the match, 16-14 in the fifth. It was Grand Slam No. 15 for Federer; for Roddick, for whom winning even one Wimbledon would be a career-capping triumph, it was a fourth loss there to Rog. Three of those painful defeats were in finals.
That raises the question, will Rafael Nadal be permanently marked by that critical, backhand miss in the Australian Open final a few days ago? You know the point: Rafa, mounting a furious fightback, broke Nadal Djokovic to take a 4-2 lead in the fifth set. Serving the next game, he made a forehand inside-out winner to go up 15-0. Djokovic then tagged a second-serve cross-court service-return winner. 15-all. But Rafa replied with a service winner to Djokovic's vaunted backhand for a 30-15 lead. It was the 11th time he won the point in the last 12 attempts when Rafa put his first serve into play.
During the next point, though, Rafa hit a weak drop volley that Djokovic chased down. But he wasn't able to do much with it, and Nadal had a great look at a backhand down-the-line pass. He missed it, plain and simple. It was a critical error that made many in the crowd gasp. Instead of 40-15, it was 30-all.
The miss had an immediate, painful impact. After it, Nadal surrendered the game with two quick forehand errors. Worse yet, he lapsed back into defensive mode in the very next game, which Djokovic ran off at love to level the match at 4-all.
"Well, with the 4-2 was advantage because I felt very well physically in the moment," Nadal said afterward. "I felt with very positive energy, and I played a fantastic first point of the 4-2 with the forehand winner down the line after he had that return. . . It's true I had big mistake with 30-15. But it's not the (right) moment to think about that. That's just another moment in an almost six hours match. Forget about that, knowing that I really had real, very real chances to have the title and to win against a player who I lost (to) six times last year."
That has to be the way Nadal looks at it, but at the same time it makes you wonder what might flicker in his mind if he ever finds himself in a comparable situation with Djokovic in the future. There's no way to know about that until it happens, and you can bet that should a similar point be played by these two in the future, somebody will remember what happened last Sunday, and make a point of asking the players about it.
But remember, even if Rafa had made that pass, it doesn't mean that he would have gone on hold, never mind win the match. Not any more than a conversion of that backhand volley by Roddick would have automatically resulted in a win over Federer.
In the quote two paragraphs up, you'll notice the ellipses marks indicating that some text was removed. Here's what I took out because it wasn't terribly relevant at the moment (it also jumps off the transcript as something like a unfiltered, spontaneous observation that Nadal couldn't suppress, or wait any longer to make):
"Is something unbelievable how he 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."
A Nadal fan might be moved to wince by the obvious note of awe in that remark, but I think it's a net plus for Rafa when it comes to weighing the potential long-term impact of that seventh game. If you reinsert that passage and re-read the entire quote, you can see that Nadal's analysis includes an appropriate respect for, and acceptance of, Djokovic's returning skills, as well as a tempered evaluation of the place of that game in the grand scheme of things.
In other words, Nadal probably won't be haunted by that backhand miss. He feels the game was about Djokovic's returning skill. The next time they meet, Nadal will be less likely to fret about missing a similar shot or opportunity than about what Djokovic's return skills demand of his serve game.
Great players have short memories. If Nadal loses any sleep over this match, it's unlikely to be over that missed backhand pass.