Game Change

by: Peter Bodo | September 09, 2013

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Photo by Anita Aguilar

NEW YORK—Destiny beckoned to each man in the U.S. Open final, but only one answered the call with the full commitment of his being. As Rafael Nadal rushed headlong to embrace fate, Novak Djokovic seemed to resist it. At first, the Serb couldn’t find his inspiration; later, he couldn’t sustain it. As a result, Nadal drilled his way deeper in the record books with a triumph that might stand as a career-defining moment—a 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 result that resonated with significance. 

This one was for the title of player of the year, ATP rankings be danged, as the men entered the tournament with one Grand Slam win apiece. Nadal stole out of the semis at Roland Garros with a 9-7 in-the-fifth win, boosting his overall record against Djokovic to 20-15, but Djokovic had a big lead on hard courts, 11-6. 

This was also Nadal’s bid to bag a 13th major title, and it had the complexion of a game-changer when it comes to his legacy. At 27, Nadal is now just four major titles behind his original rival, Roger Federer. Given his undiminished prowess at Roland Garros (eight titles in nine tries). . . well, you do the math. 

But all that also meant that Djokovic had a great opportunity to play the spoiler, and if there were an insufficiently dignified role, to insert himself into the “greatest this” and “greatest that” conversation.

This also was Djokovic’s last best chance this year to recapture the lost glory of 2011, the year he dominated and hammered Nadal in all six of their meetings, including two in Masters finals deep in the European red-clay heartland. Nadal came into this contest with a soaring spirit and a 21-match winning streak on hard courts, proof positive that the threat his vulnerable knees posed to his career as little as a year ago had, at least for now, abated. Nadal hardly dared dream of winning here; it was too much like the perfect ending to a fairy-tale story. That ought to explain why he called this season “the most emotional one” in his career. 

“I felt that I did everything right to have my chance here,” Nadal said afterward. “So, you know, you play one match against one of the best players of the history, number one in the world, probably on his favorite surface, so I have to be almost perfect to win. Means a lot for me to have this trophy. Is just amazing.”

A subdued Djokovic sounded almost penitent when he reviewed how he allowed the match to get away from him after rallying to win the second set.  

“It’s all my fault, you know. I made some unforced errors in the crucial moments with forehands and dropped the serve twice when I should not have. The next thing you know, all of a sudden it’s two sets to one for him.”

The reality was a little more complicated than that, starting with the puzzling if not entirely unfamiliar slow start by Djokovic. By the fourth game he was down a break and seeking relief from the pressure by unburdening himself after errors to his coach and support team in the guest box. Djokovic can’t afford to spot Nadal points, never mind sets.

The match-up between Djokovic and Nadal, aside from producing rallies that seem to belong in some perfect athletic parallel universe, is compelling. But not in the familiar ways. It isn’t a clash of radically different personalities (a la Pete Sampras vs. Andre Agassi), or a bout pitting a creative genius against an implacable, focused grinder who does fewer things, but all of them well (a la John McEnroe vs. Bjorn Borg). 

The difference between Djokovic and Nadal seems to be a profound one, because it goes right to the issue of temperament. Djokovic, with his flair for the dramatic, lives on inspiration. Nadal, by contrast, may have the fierce mien and primitive zeal of the born competitor, but he’s also a model of diligence. During a match, Djokovic struts around like a thespian, making dramatic statements but occasionally stepping on his lines; Nadal, for all the vicious punch in his forehand, is like a kid collecting and counting his Halloween candy. Don’t for a moment think he doesn’t know exactly how many Kit-Kats he's acquired.

You tend not to get great highs and lows from a diligent player like Nadal, and that was more conspicuous in this match thanks to the fluctuating fortunes of Djokovic. In the second set, the burst of inspiration so many onlookers expected re-charged Djokovic’s flagging game. He began to press Nadal, and finally punched through, the climax being an incredible 54-shot rally that produced a break to give Djokovic a 4-2 lead.

Nadal struck right back, though, with a break of his own, but try as he might he was unable to hold off Djokovic. Nadal was broken again for 5-3 (he had been broken just once in the previous six rounds) and Djokovic served out the set convincingly. When Djokovic broke a dejected Nadal in the first game of the third set, it appeared that the tide might have turned.

The conventional analogy is apt, because there’s enough similarity in the way these men play the game to play down contrasts and emphasize like-mindedness. As Nadal said, “When I won this first set 6-2 playing, in my opinion, amazing tennis, I was very happy. I go to the chair and said, ‘Well, now we start again, because I am sure that I am not able to keep playing at that level for two more sets. Is impossible.’”

The matches between these two men feature great but slow and not always conspicuous shifts of momentum. For example, in the second set and early in the third, a window suddenly opened for Djokovic on the Nadal backhand. By the end of the third set, however, Nadal had slammed that window shut, and dreams of another epic, five-hour final between these two began to evaporate even as the astonishing marriage of power and accuracy continued to produce dazzling rallies. 

“I played points like this on different surfaces and different occasions against Rafa,” Djokovic said of the long rallies. “This where you just feel that there is the last drop of energy that you need to use in order to win the point. Sometimes I was winning those points; sometimes him. It’s what we do when we play against each other, always pushing each other to the limit. That’s the beauty of our matches and our rivalry, I guess, in the end.”

But once again Djokovic was unable to resist Nadal’s diligence. The turning point, if that’s the right term for it, occurred in the ninth game of the third set, after Nadal had leveled the match with a break for 3-all. The rallies in the ensuing three games were furious; Djokovic was at the zenith of his powers, and suddenly Nadal found himself down love-40 at 4-all in the ninth game. Yet he found a way to eradicate all three break points, the last with his only ace of the match.

“I tried to be there, keep fighting for every ball, and tried to be focused in every moment and tried to wait for my moment,” Nadal said. “I know if I am only one break behind I will have my chance. The normal thing is I will have my chance. Then you can convert or not. I did it, but even then I still had that love-40 game that was really, really amazing.”

That escape left Djokovic dispirited, and Nadal rolled through the final set with relative ease. I say relative, because despite the fluctuations in Djokovic’s game and his sometimes fatal theatrical impulses, his game can rise to unmatched heights. Nadal knows that better than anyone, because they bring out the best in each other. As he said, “Sometimes, I really don’t know how I am able to beat him.”

Put it down to pure and simple diligence.

If you enjoy reading Pete Bodo at, you might also be interested in his latest novel, The Reckoning. A revised version of this father-son story set in the Rocky Mountains has just been issued by e-publisher Diversion Books. Click here for more on this grand adventure tale, or to download the book.

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