Any Given Monday

Sunday, June 10, 2012 /by

RnPARIS—Novak Djokovic vs. Rafael Nadal: It is, undeniably, the greatest Monday rivalry in history. Their U.S. Open finals in 2010 and ’11; their Australian Open final in 2012; their Rome final from last week, and now this one, all finished on a Monday. These guys really can’t do anything on time, can they?

Thus far this has one been the most frustrating of all. The showdown we’d been pointing to all season was turned into a gloomy and nervy—and unfinished—afternoon of tennis viewing. It was dark. It was drizzling. The play was shaky. Neither guy seemed to believe he could beat the other. One smashed a hole in his sideline bench. The other tore into the chair umpire for not stopping play, and then tore into the referee when he did. The tennis only began to rise to the level we expect from both of them at the start of the fourth set. And that’s exactly when it was postponed until tomorrow afternoon, when there’s a 70 percent chance of rain again and the stadium is unlikely to be even close to full.

You knew all of that, of course, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Except, of course, start the match at 1:00 P.M. instead of the usual 3:00 P.M. Roland Garros tournament director Gilbert Ysern claimed today that it was impossible to shift the starting time, because of longstanding arrangements with broadcasters.

For the moment, with no conclusions to draw from this unconcluded match, I’ll look at four items of interest that did occur on this most enervating day of tennis in 2012.

*****

Nadal’s Nerves
In thinking about and previewing the match, I didn’t put much stock in the idea that Djokovic would still be in Rafa’s head, and that having a lead on Nole would make Nadal tight. But that’s what happened right away. Rafa played calm and controlled tennis in winning the first three games. Then, with the lead, he began backing up, hitting his forehand short, and pushing his backhand. It felt like the fifth set of the Australian Open all over again.

The pattern was set. In each of the first three sets, Nadal broke out to an early advantage before giving it back. In the first two, with help from an off-form and unhappy Djokovic, he still went on to win. In the third, when Novak finally relaxed and started letting loose with his best stuff, Nadal lost the set and eventually eight straight games.

On the whole, this was a different Rafa from the one we’ve seen at this tournament so far—he was broken once in his first six matches; today he was broken five times in a little over three sets. That may have had something to do with the conditions, but I think it mostly had to do with who Rafa was playing and the psychology of their matchup, as well as where they were playing. Nadal's two wins over Djokovic this spring have helped him, but his Djoker complex is still alive at the majors. Nadal needs to win this one to kill it off.

Novak’s (Lack of) Belief
I was surprised by Nadal’s nerves, but I was just as surprised by the way Djokovic started the match. After hitting a forehand into the net on the second point of his opening service game, he was visibly frustrated—that’s a little early, even for Nole, to start getting edgy and throwing his hands in the air. In his interviews the previous day, Djokovic, despite his No. 1 ranking, said that he would try to think positively and try to believe that he could win. He didn’t sound all that confident. For the most part, that’s how he played. Djokovic spent a good two sets, despite Nadal’s obvious struggles, looking like a man who had already lost.

NdIn vintage Djokovic style, though, right at the moment when he had virtually lost the match, he relaxed and began to play much better. Down two sets and a break, he had nothing left to lose. Thinking about this match and his comeback win over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, it’s as if Djokovic needs to have already lost in his mind before he can play the way he should, with no nerves or frustration or worries in the way.

While Nadal has been dominant in Paris so far, we should have remembered that, with the exception of their match in Rome last month, an in-form Djokovic has had Rafa’s number on all surfaces for more than a year. Their usual dynamic went right back into place when Nole woke up in the third.

The Weather
It seemed that, when they went off in the second set, play would be delayed for quite a while. So I was caught off-guard, walking outside, when I saw Nadal and Djokovic back out there warming up. It felt like a little too much mist and drizzle to be playing, even on clay. At the time, I was glad to see it; this was the type of weather that has stalled play for days at the U.S. Open in the past. But the consensus was that tournament officials had seen the bad forecast for Monday and put the players back on in conditions that were borderline at best.

Tournament referee Stefan Fransson later said that neither player complained, or made any “comments,” when they went back on. Nadal, frustrated by the ballooning wet balls and Djokovic’s sudden turn toward the brilliant, soon did provide plenty of commentary. He didn’t like staying out there in the rain, but he didn’t like the belated decision to go off, either. When Fransson finally pulled them, Nadal told him that the weather was “the same as it was one hour ago,” though in truth the rain had picked up noticeably. The weather was now in Rafa’s head; more important, Djokovic was back in there, too.

It should be noted that, considering the way he played the third set of this match, and the way he came back against Tsonga in a similar drizzle, Novak Djokovic is a really good rain player.

What Might Happen Monday?
First, the same balls that Nadal hated so much will be put back into play when they come out tomorrow. As Fransson drily noted, it’s presumed that they will be dry by then.

When they stopped on Sunday, Djokovic had the overall momentum, having won eight of nine games. But Nadal had fought back to hold before they went off. I’d say Djokovic was hurt more by the suspension, if only because Nadal was so agitated. As for Monday, I don’t know who will respond better, or get it together more quickly. Nadal knows he just needs five games for the title, while Djokovic now knows that he can win this match. The problem for Novak is that he played his best tennis when he was out of it. Now that he’s no longer out of it, can he still swing as freely?

I picked Nadal in four sets before the match. Even though Djokovic has been impossible to close out at a major for more than a year now, I’ll stay with that pick.

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