Genius and Jackalope

by: Peter Bodo | October 04, 2013

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You have to hand it to Novak Djokovic; he’s been mounting the proverbial steps leading up to the gallows with his chest puffed up and his chin thrust forward. Tomorrow in Beijing, Rafael Nadal can take over the world No. 1 world ranking, a standing he will have almost zero chance of losing before it becomes the official year-end honor. 

There’s absolutely nothing Djokovic, who’s presently No. 1, can do about this. He has a ton of points to defend through the rest of the year—3,010 to be precise, the equivalent of three Masters 1000 titles, or a Grand Slam, a Masters, and then some—while Nadal has nothing. Zero. Each time Nadal smacks the ball, you can hear that sweet “cha-ching” that represents ranking points as well as prize money.

But Djokovic has been soldiering on bravely, as we’ve seen this week. He’s the defending champion in Beijing, and acting as if it’ll be a cold day in hell before Nadal takes that title away from him, too. The WTA is frequently criticized for producing too many straight-sets blowouts that make it seem as if the winner’s main goal was mopping up in under an hour. That tendency has now become an ATP problem, too, at least when Djokovic is afoot on a hard court.

Today, he whacked Sam Querrey in a brutal display of superiority, 6-1, 6-2. For the second time at this event, Djokovic won in under an hour (54 minutes today, to be exact). The way Djokovic played his first match point remains the perfect symbol for what went on out there. He stepped up to the service notch and delivered an ace that Querrey could only watch as it sizzled past.

The funny thing is, Querrey didn’t really play a horrible match. But in addition to Djokovic’s display of dazzling skills, we were treated to a vivid lesson about Querrey’s game, which is one of the most baffling and ill-fitting on the ATP tour. 

The whole Querrey package reminds me of the jackalope, that creature with which folks in Wyoming have been fooling visiting tenderfoots for time immemorial. You know, the jackrabbit with deer antlers or the horns of an antelope attached to the critter’s head. Clever taxidermists have been making a living off those novelty mounts for decades.

Querrey, who’s ranked 13 places off his career high at No. 30, is a lean 6’6” and armed with a monstrous serve. It’s the kind of shot you build a game around, but unfortunately that’s not what Querrey did. He may have been sidetracked by the fact that he has excellent ball skills—solid, powerful groundstrokes and downright feathery touch at the net. All of these are appealing assets, yet they never quite seem to combine to create a whole more impressive—or effective—than the sum of the parts.

When you watch Querrey, it’s easy get the sense that he’s playing the wrong game with the wrong body, even if you’d be hard pressed to do any better if you could build him over again. He isn’t quick or light enough on his feet to play a much more aggressive game, especially in this era when approaching the net brings to mind verses of that classic heroic poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade. 

At the same time, though, it’s obvious that the potential of Querrey’s big serve often goes to waste. If you’re just going to try to win the point rallying, why not just spin it in to get things going?

The answer is obvious; because you can end points before they begin in three ways: With an ace, an unreturned serve, or a service-return error. In a typical match, Querrey cashes in on one or another of those possibilities with enough frequency to make him dangerous and effective. But Djokovic, perhaps the best returner in the game today, showed what happens when none of those options are available, as attested by Querrey’s atrocious serve-point conversion stats. He won just 57 percent of the first-serve points he dished up, and a dismal 30 percent of his second-serve deliveries.

You can give Djokovic a lot of credit for those numbers, and also for demonstrating how difficult it is for Querrey to blend his tools into an effective strategy. 

Querrey doesn’t begin points with the aim of taking command—that is, going for something like the classic big-serve/inside-out-forehand combination off the return. He more or less plays it by ear, and that’s suicidal against a returner of Djokovic’s caliber.

While Querrey does some of his best work at or near the net, his talent is severely limited by an inability to get up there. His serve and groundstrokes have always kept him competitive; perhaps he never felt the urgency to exploit his volleying skills more fully, even that’s a particularly tough ask against today’s superb defenders.

Djokovic is almost exactly the opposite sort of player, a disciplined character (doesn’t Querrey even look somewhat disorganized and disheveled too much of the time?) whose game is Brancusi-ish, beautifully sculpted with an absolute economy only sometimes compromised by that handy flexibility that makes him a borderline contortionist. 

It’s pretty easy these days to watch Djokovic and wonder what went wrong, apart from Nadal once again getting right. Djokovic proved in 2011 that he’s much better than a default No. 1, yet the way he’s squandered the enormous rankings lead he built in Nadal’s absence, and during Federer’s troubles, is almost mortifying—especially so because it isn’t like he noticeably slumped, or otherwise suggested that the burden of being No. 1 lay too heavily on his shoulders. I suppose if anything it may have lay too easily.

In any event, is it me or can you see that doomed look in Djokovic’s eyes now, even when he plays as well as he did today? He appears to be grimacing more than usual, he seems to be more withdrawn than the Nole we’ve come to know. He keeps his own counsel between points, expressing his feelings in small, subtle ways—a wag of the head here, a working of the jaw there. I’d believe it if someone suggested something is eating away at this guy.

It can’t be easy, playing this game while knowing that you’ve blown a good thing, that you’ve held the door open for your rival to stroll through and take what has been rightfully yours for a solid interval (101 weeks). 

What do you think Djokovic would most like, to see Nadal lose to Tomas Berdych in the semifinals, giving himself a chance to hang onto that precious top ranking for at least another week (should he go on to a successful title defense); or would he rather see Nadal lock up that top ranking in order to get at him in a potential final, to lay the wood to him in the final just to make a point?

I almost think at this point option two might be more appealing to Djokovic, even if he’s going to hear the trap door under his feet bang open either way.

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