My assignment for the latest edition of the Novak Djokovic-Rafael Nadal rivalry was to look, mostly, at the Nole side of things. Pete Bodo will have his take on Rafa's day this afternoon.
This year it has often seemed that there are two Novak Djokovics out on court. One is edgy, emotional, deep breathing, quick to throw his hands in the air in frustration, quick to pull the plug and go for broke if things aren’t going his way. The other is the man who, after allowing the first Novak to vent with a few of those deep breaths and big swings, calms him down and gets him to do what he knows he should do out there. Djokovic fights himself, and then fights the person on the other side of the net. He usually wins both battles.
You might think that Djokovic would be better off without the first, volatile version of himself. But watching him in the Monte Carlo final against Rafael Nadal on Sunday, it was obvious that the emotion and edge and frustration, all of those things he normally has to conquer but which feed his best tennis, were missing, and without them he didn’t stand a chance.
Djokovic knew it, too. Afterward, he kept coming back to that key word of the week for him: emotion. “I definitely don’t want to take anything away from Rafa’s win,” said Djokovic, who had labored for the last five days after learning of his grandfather Vladimir’s death. “He was a better player. But it’s a fact that I just didn’t have any emotional energy left in me. I’ve never been caught up in this kind of emotional situation before.”
After holding serve at love to start, Djokovic went flat. He guided many of his backhands rather than ripping them, his typically brilliant return wasn’t firing, and he finished the match with upwards of 25 unforced errors against half as many winners. Only at 3-5 in the first set did we see Djokovic begin to talk to himself, begin to try to work some of his desire to the surface. But that ultimately fell flat as well. Djokovic was broken for the set a few points later. The most he could muster after that was a wry smile and a shake of his head as another shot went bad. The end couldn’t come soon enough.
Will the extenuating circumstances, and Djokovic’s inability to compete, make this result less significant for Nadal? It’s true that he didn’t beat the Djoker at his best or most committed, but it’s still an important win for the Spaniard’s psyche, and one that shifts the dynamic of their rivalry. Nadal would have been very tough for Djokovic to beat anyway today. He came out determined to be more aggressive with his return, take the initiative in rallies, and, if all else failed, keep the ball deep. It was a win-win situation, according to Rafa. “I had lost to Novak seven times,” Nadal said, “so losing eight wouldn’t have been much different. But to win this one makes a big difference.”
Best for Rafa were his backhand, which he hit as if he simply had no choice but to go after it, and his serve. After seeing too many of those serves come screaming back in Melbourne, Nadal upped his pace today, mixed his locations, worked Djokovic's body, and neutralized his biggest weapon, his return. While Nadal won’t always serve so well in their future matches, it’s not as if this were just an accident or a lucky couple of sets, either. All week Rafa had been going to the wide serve in the deuce court, and making it work for him, more often than normal. The fact that he was able to implement some changes against Novak for the first time in 18 months should help Nadal relax and believe in himself more the next time they play. If you’re a tennis fan, this is what you want. One player inspired by his nemesis to find a way to raise his own game; that’s what rivalries are for, and we should see in a few weeks whether we’ve entered a new phase in this one.
Yet, as Djokovic said, this match was also about what one player couldn’t do. It’s disappointing that Djokovic couldn’t get up for this one, but in a way it only shows how difficult and gutsy his performances were in the three previous rounds. Credit Nole for hanging in long enough to at least give fans another installment of Rafole.
Djokovic said that his grandfather “always told me to fight.” I’m guessing Vladimir would have understood his inability to do it one more time today. I’m guessing he would have understood that sometimes it’s OK to wait and fight another day.