Bat-and-Mouse

Sunday, September 09, 2012 /by

NEW YORK—Suddenly, a good year masquerading as a so-so year (thanks to pundits, critics, and his astounding 2011 record) is on the verge of becoming another great year for Novak Djokovic. His 2-6, 6-1, 6-4, 6-2 victory today over David Ferrer in the U.S. Open semifinals puts him in position to be the only player to win two Grand Slam titles this year.

Djokovic, the defending champion and No. 2 seed here (behind long-departed Roger Federer), has already failed to complete the two goals he set for himself this year: Triumphs at the French Open and the Olympics.

But, ironically, a win here might leave Djokovic with more to feel good about than had he accomplished at least one of those aforementioned tasks. In terms of degree-of-difficulty, there’s no real comparison between winning the one-week, best-of-three sets Olympic event (we won’t even get into the jiggered draw) and a two-week, best-of-five sets Grand Slam event, despite the obvious pride the pros take in representing their respective nations. Both are great achievements, but in vastly different ways.

There’s some humorous, exotic permutation of the old “be careful what you wish for” admonition at work here when it comes to Djokovic’s history in 2012, although I’m not clever enough to articulate it. He can’t either, but there was no reason to doubt his sincerity when he said, after today’s match, “In life you have ups and downs. So I wasn’t surprised with, if you want to call it a bit less success in 2012 than in 2011. I tried to take the best out of that experience. . . I still think it’s been a fantastic year for me.”

The win over Ferrer today was convincing, given that Djokovic more or less spotted the world No. 5 the first set during that bizarre, wind-torn afternoon yesterday. Those conditions really favored Ferrer in one significant way: His backswings are short—so much so that he often appears to be taking less of a swing than a slap at the ball. Also, because Ferrer plays relatively compact and flat, he can tighten up his stroke even more easily than Djokovic, whose forehand is most lethal when he has time to take the kind of big cut even a moderate wind—never mind yesterday’s gale—forbids.

Those details help explain why Djokovic came out yesterday and basically attacked the net at every opportunity, good or bad, showing surprisingly little respect for Ferrer’s ability to hit passing shots. Djokovic learned soon enough that Ferrer is comfortable throwing darts instead of swinging from the heels, and he fell behind 2-5 before the stadium was abruptly evacuated and play postponed for the day. That lead evaporated as quickly as yesterday’s puddles when play resumed today in bright sunshine under a baking sun.

“You know, Ferrer was coping with the conditions yesterday much better than I did,” Djokovic said. “He was handling it great. I mean, I haven’t found any rhythm, so I didn’t mind getting off the court yesterday, to be honest, and coming in today.”

I must admit, I don’t quite understand the umbrage some fans take when I or anyone else describes Ferrer as a one-trick pony. I admire his doggedness and diligence, and he certainly doesn’t need my endorsement to prosper and flourish. He’s a steady Top 5 player. But his game is utterly one-dimensional, and just as responsible for his inability to crack the highest echelon (he’s never been past a Grand Slam semifinal, and has yet to win a Masters 1000 title) as it is for his consistently good results.

Ferrer is 14-44 against the world’s Top 4 (Federer, Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray), and least successful against the most multi-dimensional among them, Federer (who leads their head-to-head, 13-0). The main job of every player is to make the most of what he’s got, and what he’s got is what he’s been given, not what he’s chosen. So Ferrer deserves only praise for making the most of his game, but there’s no point romanticizing him, either.

Also, I like Ferrer’s tight-lipped realism and honesty. When he was asked if it was “difficult” to come back and start the match anew under such different conditions, he replied, “Not difficult. We are professional players. We stopped three times and we come back again to the court, no? Yesterday we stopped only one day.  That's okay, no? Wasn't a problem.”

Ferrer is a warrior, no doubt about it. But when you throw out the first, wacky set the men inherited from yesterday, this match was a blow-out. Djokovic at times seemed less intent on winning than on demonstrating that he could beat Ferrer at the Spaniard’s own game—coming out on top in long baseline exchanges. That’s the way he must play against his fellow Grand Slam champions, but he has more options against a player with limitations like Ferrer’s. But it hardly mattered in the end, as Ferrer was unable to keep pace with Djokovic’s pile-driver groundstrokes in anything but bursts.

Significantly, though, Djokovic discreetly chose to call upon some of those largely ignored options in what proved, to me, the most critical game in the match. It was the seventh game of the third set, with the men deadlocked at a set apiece and three-all. With Ferrer serving, Djokovic abruptly abandoned his determination to blast Ferrer off the court. He began to mix up his game, throwing in a variety of slices and even leisurely, semi-lobbed forehands.

The result: three groundstroke errors and a smash winner by Djokovic, all adding up to a break. The way he won the game was particularly instructive; the men engaged in a rally, with Djokovic feeding Ferrer off-pace stuff that denied the Spaniard the pace on which he feeds so happily. After four or five exchanges, Djokovic shoveled up a shot to Ferrer’s forehand corner, virtually daring him to take a big cut and go for the winner that might have restored the score to deuce. Ferrer swung too hard and drilled the ball into the net.

His point made, Djokovic reverted to playing the match on Ferrer’s terms—although I’m sure he didn’t exactly plan or think of it in those terms. I don’t quite understand how you ignore the drop shot on any but the most obvious of occasions when you’re playing a guy whose home turf is 20 feet behind the baseline, or why Djokovic didn’t change up the pace more often with Ferrer playing so far back. When it comes to pace, Ferrer would rather consume it than serve it up, and it isn’t like he has the innate artistry or variety to double-down if you try playing cat-and-mouse. I guess bat-and-mouse was Djokovic’s preferred approach today.

***

One of the more interesting side issues that may have been resolved, or at least explained, today was the question that had been nagging everyone for pretty close to 24 hours. Knowing what lay in store, weather-wise, why didn’t the USTA put both semifinal matches on simultaneously?

For what it’s worth, my sources told me that the USTA broached the issue with the players, asking how they felt about playing the two semis simultaneously. They allegedly rejected the idea. When Djokovic was asked flat-out if he “wanted” to play on Armstrong yesterday while Murray and Berdych battled on Ashe, he said, “No. No, I mean. . .they didn’t ask me, but you know that was an option. I said, ‘I mean, it’s not on me to decide.’ Whatever you have to decide I have to accept it.”

If you were in that room, you’d probably agree that this was a very mixed signal he sent, but it hardly matters now. And it was the only mixed signal he sent on the day.

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