Back to the Present

Monday, April 22, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

There was a back-to-the-future, or maybe a back-to-the-present, quality to Sunday's Monte Carlo final between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. The last time we saw them facing each other across a net, at Roland Garros last June, they were ranked No. 1 and No. 2, and they were playing in their fourth straight Grand Slam final. Nadal’s long injury hiatus put a lot of things on hold, the most prominent of which was the game’s Next Great Rivalry. 

Nole and Rafa two took up pretty much where they left off, pushing and pulling each other around a clay court for nearly two hours, in what was a more entertaining and well-played match than the 6-2, 7-6(1) scores, in Djokovic’s favor, might have indicated. Here are five thoughts that crossed my mind as I watched the 34th edition of Rafole.

*****

It's good to see these guys again

There’s nothing like a year off from a rivalry to make the heart grow fonder. From the first grunts, the first long side-to-side rally, the first point-ending crosscourt backhand from Djokovic, I was happy to back in the unique tennis world that Djokovic and Nadal create together. It splits the difference between Federer-Nadal, which has genius shot-making but relatively quick points, and Murray-Djokovic, which has the rallies and the physicality but rarely reaches peaks of brilliance. 

Rafa and Nole give you a rhythm from the baseline, but they don’t rally passively. Shots are hit with purpose, because anything left hanging will likely be punished—there’s an urgency to each swing and decision that's rare for baseline tennis. And the grinding, grunting (but not “brutal”) element of their matches is set off by the flamboyant excellence of their strokes.

*****

Old patterns between them re-emerged

This version of Djokovic-Nadal felt like 2011 all over again. Djokovic seized the initiative right away. He took bigger cuts than he normally does in his first service game, and immediately connected for a winner with a shot that has always troubled Nadal, the crosscourt backhand. Even if it doesn’t win him the point outright, that shot is still one of the big keys for Djokovic against Rafa. With his backhand, he can get Nadal running and out of position, and open up the Spaniard’s weaker backhand side. Rafa in general is not as good at creating—space, angles, opportunities—from that wing. And with Nole across the net, there’s no backhand side for him to exploit in his opponent. Nadal appeared lost at times for a way to proceed, his face looking younger and more vulnerable than it normally does on court.

The rally patterns have favored Djokovic in recent years, but there was another pattern that has historically gone Nadal’s way, and it almost went his way again yesterday. In the past, Djokovic would come out firing and open up an early lead, only to see his shots slowly begin to go astray as the match wore on and Rafa kept making him hit winner after winner. That looked like it might happen in the second set on Sunday, as Nadal twice went up a break, and served for it at 6-5. But each time, Djokovic broke the old pattern by reasserting his aggressive stance. The past victories over Nadal on dirt have helped; rather than hang his head at the inevitability of defeat to Nadal on this surface, Djokovic grew more determined when he fell behind. After being broken at 5-5 in the second, he broke back with three outright winners, and won 11 of the final 12 points.

*****

This was a positive step for the ATP’s new time-enforcement policy

The tour decided to crack down on slow play in large part because of these two. Their six-hour Australian Open final was the catalyst, but their 4-hour, three-set Madrid semi in 2009 also lives in plodding-play infamy as well. Their points are long, of course, but in the past, when they faced each other, they seemed liberated to take even longer between them than they did against anyone else.

Yesterday was different. This Monte Carlo final lasted 21 games and took 1 hour, 52 minutes. Last year’s Rome final between these two also lasted 21 games, but took 2 hours, 20 minutes. There were, as far as I saw, no official time warnings handed out by chair umpire Mohamed Lahyani, and both guys were moving with dispatch. It looks to me as if Nadal has stopped cleaning the entire baseline before he begins a return game—a positive development in my view, if so. And while they rested less between points, the play itself was just as high-quality as always.

I’d recommend using Lahyani whenever possible when Nadal and Djokovic face off. He has handled  time enforcement as well as anyone this year, and he seems to have the confidence of both of them. Djokovic deferred to all of Layhani’s line-call decisions without argument yesterday.

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I liked how much Djokovic wanted this one

Novak came perilously close to shirt-ripping territory in his post-win celebration. I was a little surprised by that, but I guess I shouldn’t have been. Any win over Rafa on clay is worth whooping it up for, especially one in a place where he hasn’t lost in 10 years. Plus, that place just happens to be where Djokovic lives and practices much of the time. Novak has now won every Masters event other than Cincinnati, and has wins over Nadal in the finals of the three held on clay, Monte Carlo, Madrid, and Rome—something to shout about, for sure.

We can get so pre-occupied in tennis with the Slams, calling them the only tournaments that matter, that we forget how much any title means to a competitive athlete, even one like Djokovic who targets the majors. I had thought in Indian Wells and Miami that he might be struggling to find motivation for the non-Slams, but that certainly wasn’t the case in Monte Carlo. He decided to play despite a bad ankle, a bad ankle that might have hurt his preparation for Roland Garros. As he held the cup yesterday, Djokovic said it felt like the best decision of his life, and his giddy grin told you he meant it. Then he got to walk home with the trophy. There’s a lesson in that for the rest of us—play for the moment, and you’ll play your best.

Yet it’s impossible to escape the next question: What does this match mean for the French Open? It obviously helps Djokovic. Two years ago, he was the clay insurgent, but in 2012 Nadal, bound and determined to defeat his rival, reclaimed the initiative. Now Djokovic knows what he has to do, and how he has to play, to turn that table back around again; most important, he knows he can turn it. As for Rafa, he doesn’t get his usual kick start to the clay season, but he didn't play badly on Sunday. And there’s always Barcelona, which begins today and which he has won seven times. Only one thing is for sure right now: By the time we get to Paris, the landscape will look different than it does at this moment. There are two more clay Masters events to go, and maybe two more matches between Djokovic and Nadal.

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Now it’s just death and taxes...

That’s all we can count on now that Rafa has lost in Monte Carlo, right?

Djokovic was the hero yesterday, but I’ll finish with Nadal, because eight-year winning streaks don’t come to an end too often in any sport, let alone in tennis. Rafa was all smiles on the trophy stand afterward. It seemed to me that losing provided a moment of relief, and it may even have confirmed something in Nadal’s worldview. He said before the event that everyone loses sometime, which meant that he was bound to lose in Monte Carlo one year. On Sunday he had the odd satisfaction of proving his own philosophy to be true.

More than that, Nadal’s loss let all of us put a period, or better yet an exclamation point, on his Monte Carlo record. Eight straight titles, 46 straight matches, his last loss there in 2003. If any records are considered unbreakable—and very few qualify—this has to go down as one of them. Nadal's smile was well-earned. His stranglehold on the title was a big part of what made winning it, just once, so satisfying for Djokovic.

It was strange to hear a different national anthem, and a different flag—Serbia’s, in both cases, of course—play during the post-match ceremony. Strange, but fitting. When Nadal lost his 81-match winning streak on clay in Hamburg in 2007, he said that it was only right that it happened against Roger Federer. Times have changed a little, but the idea is the same. Someone's name had to follow the eight "Rafael Nadal"s that are carved into the Monte Carlo trophy. It's only right that it was "Novak Djokovic."

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