The Chase

Wednesday, February 08, 2012 /by

Picby Pete Bodo

In my last post, I toyed around with the possibility of Novak Djokovic becoming the first man to record a Grand Slam on the men's side since Rod Laver accomplished the feat in 1969. I wrote that the biggest hurdles would seem to be vanquishing Rafael Nadal to snatch away his French Open title, and getting past Roger Federer—the man who played Djokovic better and closer than anyone else in 2011. 

You know what they say, and what Rafa v. Nole and Roger v. Rafa proves: In tennis, it's all about the match-ups. Still, it seems weird and a little unfair that Federer has been forced into playing the role of the third wheel in the competitive relationship between Nadal and Djokovic. But that's where we are at the moment, and the dominant question in men's tennis since the middle of last year continues to be, "Can Nadal turn it around against Djokovic?"

As all the world knows, Djokovic has won seven in a row against Nadal, and in doing so has narrowed the head-to-head to 16-14, still in Rafa's favor. But Nadal's continuing mastery of Federer keeps this a No. 1 vs. No. 2 struggle for supremacy. Although "parity" might be a better word.

I'm not one of those pundits who thought that the silver lining Nadal found in the dark cloud of his most recent loss to Djokovic—their epic Australian Open final—was delusional, or anything less than heartfelt. You all know what Nadal said:

"I wanted to win, but I am happy about how I did. I had my chances against the best player of the world today. I played one against one. For a long time I didn't felt that I was playing in less advantage than him, you know. I didn't play at lower level than him for a long time, so that's a very positive thing for me. I am very happy about my mentality tonight, the mentality worked like in my best moments. So, very happy about the beginning of the 2012 season. That's all that I can say."

After that, Nadal pointed out that, but for an errant passing shot when he was serving at 30-15 with a 4-2 lead. . . who knows?

It's a reasonable position, and the first takeaway from Nadal's reaction to that record-shattering match is that he's going to be just fine. Compare that reaction, for example, to Andy Roddick's response to a no less close and bitter loss to Roger Federer in the 2009 Wimbledon final and then try to tell me that Nadal is psychologically devastated.

What then does Nadal have to do in order to stop Djokovic? These are the things he might look to work on:

1. The Backhand: Given Nadal's defensive skills, his slice backhand, while never a shot praised to high heaven, seemed more than adequate. If an opponent does somehow get Nadal into a spatial jam, he's able to essentially hit the "reset" button by tossing in one or two of those floaters—especially if he slides them in on an opponent's backhand wing.

But Nadal can't afford to do that against Djokovic. It gives Djokovic too much breathing room, and invites him to take control of the rally. Djokovic's own backhand is of such high quality that he uses it as effectively as he does the forehand to call the tune of a rally, and that means that the Rafa slice just doesn't cut it.

Nadal had an inkling of this before the final in Melbourne, and spoke of how he needed to use his backhand as more of a weapon. He did that with some success but he needs to do it more often, and realize that against Djokovic he just can't afford to tread water.

2. Court Position: In March of 2007, I watched Nadal slaughter Djokovic in the final at Indian Wells, 6-2, 7-5. Nadal was ecstatic following that win, which he attributed partly to his new-found desire and willingness to play from closer to, or inside, the baseline (check out my Trophy Biter post about that match).

The ensuing years have proved two things: the keys to the kingdom on hard courts are lying inside the court, and that playing with that aggressive, take-the-ball-on-the-rise attitude is not easily sustained.

To play with adequate aggression on a hard court on a consistent basis is especially challenging for Nadal, a player born and bred on clay. On the other hand, Djokovic seems to have figured it out, despite having a similar training background.

The dirty little secret in this conversation is that playing on or inside the baseline and taking the ball on the rise is just as much a matter of confidence as training. Did you see how, after failing to make the backhand pass and absorbing a break-back in the fifth set of the Oz final, Nadal retreated to safe mode, playing from considerably behind the baseline?

3. The Serve: Given that Nadal is left-handed, his serve is good—but not great. Djokovic may have the best return in the game today, but I'd venture to say that Goran Ivanisevic could go out there, even today, and get some free points off Djokovic with his serve. And when did you last hear anyone speaking of the natural advantage Rafa enjoys with his serve?

When Nadal won the U.S. Open in 2010, he attributed a good measure of his success to his serve. He hasn't served as well since, and many a southpaw must have shuddered to hear Nadal's reverential assessment of Djokovic's return following Melbourne: "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."

Well, that's all well and good. But as a left-hander, Nadal has to find a way to neutralize Djokovic's return—partially if not entirely. The body serve is tricky, because Djokovic is so flexible that he will powder any ball that doesn't swing right into his sternum, but if you're Nadal you must take that chance. You just can't let him take a nice, big cut with the return. 

Nadal would benefit from a review of his serving patterns, and Djokovic's returning preferences. It would really help him if he could find a way to inject an element of surprise into his serving strategy. 

***

When we last heard from him, Nadal sounded as if he were eager to spend February working on his game, and his game plan. The encouraging thing for Nadal is that there certainly is room for him to be better at some of the things he hasn't always had to do all that well, until the arrival of Djokovic.

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