Should Rafael Nadal’s “B-team” of coaches get a promotion? As he usually does at the U.S. Masters events, Nadal is traveling without his uncle Toni in Montreal this week, and is instead listening to the advice of his back-up coach, Francisco Roig. Whatever the details of their discussions have been—and Rafa and Roig tend to do a lot of discussing during practice sessions—the results this week have been something of a tactical breakthrough. Nadal has stood in farther to return serve, gone after his backhand more aggressively, and mixed more shots into his opponents’ forehands. Tonight all of those things helped earn him his first win over Novak Djokovic on a hard court since 2010.
But Rafa's 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (2) victory was still a titanic struggle. So much so that, from a ball-striking perspective, this one ranks near the top of the list of the best matches these two have played, and that’s saying something. It was their 36th meeting, and among the first 35 are a few of the finest matches of the Open era. But the fast court and the summer evening brought out the best in Rafa and Nole again, as lefty and righty stood toe to toe and hooked each other from side to side for two-and-a-half hours. In the end, they were separated by just two points: Nadal won 97, Djokovic 95. The match was so hotly contested that at 2-2 in the third set Rafa drilled Nole in the chin with a passing shot, and Nole didn’t immediately accept Rafa’s apology. That qualifies as World War III these days. (Never fear, though, tensions were defused at the handshake).
Nadal’s more aggressive stance also knocked Djokovic out of his normal rhythm at the start, especially on the serve and forehand. Djokovic couldn’t play safe and outlast Rafa tonight—Nole double-faulted six times in the first set, and by the middle of the second he had made 12 forehand errors. But at 2-5 in the first Djokovic loosened up, and while he couldn’t save that set, he would play well for the rest of the night. When he came back from 40-0 down to break Nadal at 4-3 in the second, it appeared that he was wearing Rafa down with his more penetrating shots, the same way he wore him down in hard-court Masters finals in Indian Wells and Miami in 2011 after losing the first set. As the match progressed tonight, Nadal slowly inched back toward his normal, deeper court position.
But this wasn’t 2011, and while Nadal hadn’t beaten Djokovic on hard courts recently, he had banished the ghosts of that frustrating season. Rafa was more offensive-minded tonight than he ever has been against Novak. He hit seven aces, ghosted forward at the right times for putaway volleys, and tomahawked his forehand with increasing ferocity as the night went on. Nadal saw the familiar losing dynamic with Djokovic developing again, and did whatever he could to stop it. Rafa knocked on the door at 4-3 in the third set, when he had two break points wiped away with determined aggression by Djokovic. But Novak couldn’t o save himself again in the decisive tiebreaker. Nadal jumped out to a 3-0 lead with some of his best forehands of the night, and Djokovic couldn't muster a last response. This classic ended, unfortunately, with an anti-climactic series of errors from him.
That was the only disappointment on a night of gracefully vehement tennis from both men. By the end they were both grunting with every full-blooded cut they took, but in no way was this “brutal” tennis. Their swings grew bigger and their noises louder, but their shots got more creative and precise.
Nadal improves his career record against Djokovic to 21-15, and he reaches his second hard-court final in as many events in 2013—maybe Toni should let Roig and the B-team, who guided Rafa to a title in Indian Wells, handle things at the U.S. Open, too. Really, though, this match was one more win for the Rafa-Nole rivalry. Those two have a hard time playing a bad match against each other.