The Heroic and the Human

Friday, June 07, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

You know a match is a good one when neither player can fathom the shots that his opponent is pulling off. Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic spent a fair amount of Friday shaking their heads and smiling in rueful disbelief at their rival’s preposterous play. Nadal couldn’t believe Djokovic’s lunging, line-licking returns, or his above-the-shoulder tomahawk forehand winners. As for Novak, he looked for help from his coaches after Rafa dug one more impossible get out of the clay, or hooked another forehand down the line on the dead run. Alas, there was no help for either man. Rafa and Nole were back where they belong, way out on the Grand Slam high wire again.

This epic was a mirror image of their last one, in the 2012 Australian Open final. That day it had been Nadal who had survived a near-death experience in the fourth set, won it in a tiebreaker, and taken a 4-2 lead in the fifth before watching Djokovic storm back for the title. Today it was Nole who broke Rafa at 3-4 in the fourth and again at 5-6, grabbed that set in a tiebreaker, and led 4-2 in the fifth before watching Nadal take it all away, 9-7. In each of those matches, the loser was haunted by a stunning, crucial lapse. In Australia, with a chance to go up 5-2 in the fifth, Nadal had missed the easiest of backhand passing shots. In Paris, serving at 4-3 in the final set, two games from victory and a chance at his first French Open title, Djokovic gave away a point when he ran into the net after hitting what would have been a winning overhead.

In Melbourne, it took these two nearly six hours to decide a winner; today the end came in a relatively brisk four hours and 37 minutes. But this match lacked for nothing. It had the elegantly brutal corner-to-corner rallies that we expect from these two; as always, Djokovic pressed forward, forced to throw caution to the wind, while Nadal made him hit one, two, three more perfect shots. It had the ebbs and flows in momentum that have characterized their past matches: Nadal started well, but Djokovic answered in the second set, and came out swinging again at the end of the fourth. Nadal appeared beaten in the fifth, but found his confidence before it was over.

The match also had wind to deal with, time violations to shrug off, a tweener lob from Rafa, and a fifth-set argument between Djokovic and the umpire about watering the court. It was that last, strange dispute, which Djokovic wouldn’t let go, that finally threw off his concentration and led to his demise. In the rain-soaked 2012 final here, the court had been too soggy for Rafa; this year the court was too slippery for Nole. Both times the water gods, and the French officials, left Djokovic high and dry.

As I write this a few hours after the match, it's not the heroics of these two players that I want to remember; it's their flaws. When we look back at the game’s greats, its Borgs and Grafs and Lavers and Navratilovas, too often we talk about them as if they had no imperfections, as if they never choked or played the wrong shot or made a crucial blunder, never missed an easy pass or ran into the net a second too soon. We know it’s not true, that they must have been human. But we like to pretend that Gods once roamed the earth, and that they deserve our unquestioning reverence.

Some day we’ll talk the same way about Nadal and Djokovic. In 20 years, when the world’s new No. 1 is struggling in the wind at Roland Garros, we’ll say, “Rafa never would have let that ball get past him,” or “Nole would have given that weak serve what it deserved.” But as great as this match was, it also revealed their human sides. 

Djokovic was determined to win this for his late coach, Jelena Gencic, but he still couldn't banish his doubts about whether he really could beat the King of Clay here, in a three-out-of-five-set match, for the first time. He fought those doubts all the way to the end, and played brilliant tennis whenever he cleared them from his head. But they returned when he evened the match at one set all, and again when he took the lead for in the fifth set. Even with 15 wins over Rafa in the past, beating him here required a different level of belief, and a more sustained elevation of his game.

Rafa had similar doubts about beating Djokovic. They had been ingrained over the course of his seven straight defeats to him in 2011-’12, and had popped up again in their match in Monte Carlo in April. He's usually on defense against Nole, scrambling to stay in points and often matches; everything about their rally patterns works against him. More than once today, Nadal took the lead, only to see Djokovic wipe it away with a return that was planted on the baseline, and a backhand winner to the corner—the Serb, Rafa's grimace in these moments said, could make it look so easy. Twice in the fourth set, just as Nadal appeared ready to drop the hammer for good, he was broken. 

In Australia, Nadal succumbed to his nerves; in Paris, Djokovic let himself get distracted at the wrong time. Last time, from 2-4 down, Nole played like he had ice in his veins; today, from 2-4 down, Nadal broke out of his desperately defensive posture and rallied with new depth and aggression. He would finish this match with seven more winners than Djokovic, 61 to 54.

Afterward, Rafa said that he “deserved” this win because of the loss he had suffered in Melbourne. “Deserved” isn’t exactly the right word; if Djokovic had won the fifth set today, he would have deserved both victories as well. What I think Rafa meant is that in the case of these two matches, which were so close, so hard-fought, so well-played, so topsy-turvy, there’s justice in the fact that both he and Nole came away with one win apiece. Nadal realizes there’s not much that separates the two rivals, and acknowledges that there’s a fair amount of luck involved in deciding which one of them ends up on top. 

Both matches were won with heroics on one side of the net, and human errors on the other. They could easily be reversed again in their next epic. When we think of Nadal and Djokovic as heroes and warriors, it means a lot more when we remember that they’re both human, too.

*****

From a semifinal preview to a final-round preview...

(3) Rafael Nadal vs. (4) David Ferrer
Nadal leads the head to head 19-4, and leads on clay 16-1

We’re down to the final, and on paper it doesn’t look like a thriller. These two are friends and Davis Cup teammates, and one of them frankly admits that he’s not as good as the other. So if you’re looking for fisticuffs, or even just a dark scowl across the net, you’ve come to the wrong match.

Worse, like the women’s final, it appears to be a stone-cold mismatch—heavyweight against middleweight, matador against picador. As I asked of Serena vs. Maria, will the men’s final be a competition, or another coronation for Rafa?

Let’s start with the head to head. I knew that Nadal led 19-4, but I didn’t know he was 16-1 against him on clay; that makes their matchup even more one-sided. As does the fact that Ferrer’s one win came all the way back in 2004, and that the last time he beat Rafa on hard courts, at the 2011 Australian Open, Nadal was hobbled by a leg injury. If you take that one away, Ferrer hasn’t recorded a win over his friend since 2007. When Ferru insists that he’s not as good as Nadal, he’s really just telling the truth.

As with Serena and Maria, Nadal does everything Ferrer does, and he does it better. He’s just as fast, just as well-conditioned, and just as cussed; but he’s also stronger, hits a heavier ball, and plays bigger in the big situations. Their matches can be close; there are plenty of tiebreakers and 7-5 sets in their history. This spring Ferrer won a set from Nadal in both Rome and Madrid, and was two points from winning the latter match. In Rome, Nadal absorbed Ferrer’s best shots in the second set, and made his own game more aggressive to counter it in the third. In Madrid, Nadal survived some bad early play before wearing Ferrer out in a 6-0 final set. Rafa always seems to have the answer for Ferrer, even if the question changes from match to match.

Is there anything that might alter this long-standing pattern between the alpha and beta of Spanish tennis? Here a few (improbable) possibilities:

—Ferrer will be fresher. He played three quick sets against Tsonga on Friday and has yet to drop a set in the tournament, while Nadal labored for more than four hours against Djokovic. But Rafa will have the all-important day off, and it’s hard to imagine him losing this match because he gets tired.  

—Rafa could have a letdown after his semifinal win. That one felt like a final, but it wasn’t. Of course, Nadal is well aware of that, and was already guarding against any letdown before he walked on court with Djokovic. When he was asked before that match whether it was the equivalent of a final, he answered, very quickly and forcefully, “No. We are playing a semifinal.” In 2005, Nadal beat Roger Federer in the semifinals, then lost the first set of the final to Mariano Puerta. It looked like letdown city for the teenager, until he won the next three sets. I’m guessing Toni Nadal won't neglect to remind him that the tournament isn’t over yet.

—Nadal might feel a weird pressure playing Ferrer on this stage. He’s beaten his buddy everywhere else, but never in a Grand Slam final. Typically, in these matches, Rafa has faced his fellow Big 3 members, Federer and Djokovic. On Sunday, he’ll be the overwhelming favorite, whether he admits it or not. That could, conceivably, make him tight. 

But there’s no reason to predict that any of this will happen. As I wrote at the start of this tournament—it’s Paris, it’s spring, it’s clay, it’s Rafa. What else do you need to know?

Pick: Nadal in three

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