Nole on the High Wire

Tuesday, April 23, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

Novak Djokovic’s win in Monte Carlo is just what the game of tennis needed at this moment in time. And I don’t know about you, but my appreciation for Djokovic really ticked up a notch in the wake of his straight sets demolition of Rafael Nadal on Sunday. Djokovic manhandled Nadal on same the red clay where Nadal has engraved one of the most astonishing legends of outright excellence in the history of sports — all sports.

One thing I realized while watching their duel under the Mediterranean sun was that Djokovic continues to pay a price for the outstanding record he accumulated in 2011. You remember, he went 70-6 (three of those losses were in the final two tournament weeks of the year), with 10 titles in 11 finals, a 41-match winning streak (not counting walkovers and byes), and six wins over then No. 1 Nadal on three different surfaces.

That record automatically made him an ideal candidate to personify the familiar expression, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” How could he equal or even top that in 2012?  Even some of those who stood in awe of Djokovic’s near-record year (Pete Sampras called it “one of the best achievements in all of sports.”) had to wonder: Is this for real — can he back it up in the future when he comes out of this zone?

In one significant regard, it was a telling comment on the place Djokovic had quietly carved out for himself in the popular imagination. Remember that Djokovic became a Grand Slam champ at almost exactly the same moment that the rivalry between Roger Federer and Nadal achieved critical mass, Djokovic’s success at the 2008 Australian Open easily overshadowed by that “greatest match in history” final at Wimbledon, in which Nadal tamed Federer, 9-7 in the fifth.

Instantly, Djokovic was a little less bright new champ, a little more puzzling third wheel. He became the threat to spoil the potential Federer vs. Nadal clashes that the media was pumping up as the greatest spectacle in tennis. It was a useful promotion but, alas, it immediately rendered any other tennis spectacle a discount item. This sensibility has played a role in shaping the public image of Djokovic, even if it didn’t resonate very long with the minority of dyed-in-the-wool aficionados. The fact that Djokovic hails from a very different Europe than Nadal or Federer also inhibited our full embrace of him.

This all seemed destined to change after 2011, but I’m not sure it really did. Sure, Djokovic played a magnificent match to throttle Nadal in the 2012 Australian Open, but at that time the theme was still “Djokovic is in Nadal’s head” — just as the theme a few years earlier had been, “Nadal is in Federer’s head.” In either case, the implication was the same: The problem lies in the head of Nadal or Federer — not in the superior game, spirit, or even head of Djokovic or Nadal.

Nadal turned around that assumption during the clay-court season in 2012, with three wins over Djokovic in four events, culminating with the championship match at Roland Garros. It seemed to many that something like the natural order had been restored. Djokovic had come down to earth after that spectacular 2011, and Nadal had evicted him from his head and changed the locks.

Whatever breaking news was to follow was deferred for good when Nadal left Wimbledon, after taking a second-round upset loss, to disappear for more than seven months due to bad knees. The spotlight, though, quickly shifted away from Djokovic as Federer dethroned him at Wimbledon and then a surging Andy Murray took Djokovic’s U.S. Open crown.

Djokovic finished 2012 at 75-12, with six titles — including a Grand Slam and the ATP World Tour Finals. But some thought it less a year of surprises than one of disappointments, for Djokovic, who also was stripped of the crown at two Grand Slams and several Masters 1000s. The aftertaste to the year was slightly bitter.

Djokovic opened this year strong, bagging his sixth Grand Slam title Melbourne, but he lost on his preferred hard courts in the semifinals of Indian Wells (to del Potro) and the fourth round in Miami (to Haas). Nadal, just back from his long hiatus, was at the same time prepping for the Euro-clay season after making a tactical decision to detour around Australia. He bolted out to a 17-1 start, with three titles — Acapulco, Sao Paulo and Indian Wells. That’s how matters stood before Monte Carlo — aka Fortress Nadal.

Given the territory we just covered (as well as the ankle injury we saw Djokovic sustain in Idaho during Davis Cup), pure logic suggested that Nadal was prohibitive favorite in last Sunday’s final. But one of the reasons we watch tennis is because pure logic fails as a predictor often enough to keep things teetering on the brink of chaos — without ever toppling over the edge. So Djokovic’s win in Monte Carlo was surprising — and not surprising. It was illogical in light of recent history, but logical when you examine its components.

Djokovic seems to have moved onto that plane where the specific wins and losses just don’t seem to matter all that much, at least not as indicators of incipient success or failure. His consistency and equanimity are superb; he just lets that punishing game roll and takes what comes.

There’s a simpler way to put this, which is that Djokovic seems a remarkably relaxed competitor. Surely you noticed how unperturbed he looked in his match with Nadal and how, by contrast, Nadal looked so. . . so stressed. One of Djokovic’s advantages is that his relaxed, loose manner brings out something in Nadal that isn’t always beneficial to him — that great, underlying streak of caution.

Nadal, after all, is an almost compulsively prudent young man. You can see it in all his little preparatory rituals, but it’s also foundational in his game. He’s the defender; the hoarder of points. Regard his best and most spectacular shots; they tend to be what you might call “reactionary,” responses to an attempt to take something (a point) away from him. Anxiety seems to lurk in him constantly, and the need to keep it under control may explain some of his compulsive behaviors.

By contrast, Djokovic’s game is that of a risk-taker —  a gambler, or a born entrepreneur. His is a game of sweeping and grand gestures; just look at how fearlessly and often he’ll eschew the safe cross-court shot for the down-the-line gamble — a ploy that Nadal has a hard time de-fusing because it opens up the court so effectively, especially when Djokovic goes down the line to Nadal’s backhand.

Side note: the difference between the success rates of Djokovic and Federer when it comes to Nadal is pretty neatly summed up in a comparison of the damage each man can do to Nadal on the backhand side. The comparison makes a very strong argument for the superiority in today’s game of the two-handed backhand. Now we return to our scheduled programming.

More than that, Djokovic’s nearly flat game makes the court on the Nadal’s side of the net appear much bigger, and this will always be true going forward because the great weakness of using exaggerated topspin is that it’s the enemy of depth. Add Djokovic’s superior talent for re-directing the ball, which enables him to create much more severe and difficult angles for Nadal to handle, and the overall impression is that Djokovic is allowed to use the doubles alley while Nadal must stay in the confines of the singles lines.

On a micro-tactical level, it’s pretty clear that Djokovic thinks no more of smacking around Nadal’s serves than those of a pesky journeyman. And then there’s that Nadal sliced backhand — the weakest shot that either man has in his repertoire. Much was made of Nadal’s failure to convert an important point in the 2012 Australian Open final with his under-spin backhand. He even said that he needs to do a little more work to shore up that shot.

That backhand didn’t let Nadal down at an obvious turning point on Sunday, but it quietly and consistently failed to help him. Every time Nadal elected to go to it, he immediately surrendered the momentum. He used it in a vain attempt to buy time, and sometimes it seemed to try it because he wasn’t quite sure what else to do. Once or twice, his slice forced lured Djokovic to the net, where he met a sucker punch in the form of a whizzing Nadal passing shot. But Rafa is not going to take down Nole by luring him to the net (you read it here first!).

This may sound awfully gloomy for Nadal fans, but it’s exactly what a player like Nadal risks when his sensibility is so cautious. The corollary to that is Djokovic will get into trouble if he takes too much for granted, loses confidence, or simply has a bad day — or a particularly long one. As John McEnroe said in a conference call I was on this morning, “The one thing you have to wonder about that result is, ‘What if it was a best-of-five match?”  

It’s a good question as the French Open bears down on us. Nadal can certainly shoot Djokovic to rag dolls, given the chance. But Djokovic’s best quality may be his willingness to walk the high wire, and the fearless way he goes about it.

That fearlessness, in both mind and game, is exactly what it takes to beat Nadal on red clay, and only one man currently has it. We are no longer living in 2011, but on Sunday Djokovic reminded us that he’s just as game and bold as he was then. The third wheel has become the driving wheel; Djokovic is the yardstick by which the rest are measured.

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