There could not have been a better antidote to the frustration and perhaps even sadness Novak Djokovic might have felt just a few days ago, when Rafael Nadal reclaimed the No. 1 ranking from him—and, just to rub salt in the wound, it seemed, entered the throne room through the back door. Tomas Berdych, Nadal’s semifinal opponent, had to retire early in their match with a back injury, guaranteeing that come Monday, Nadal would be atop the rankings again.
But the way Djokovic went out and took care of business in his own semifinal with Richard Gasquet showed how he felt about all that. It also suggested that Djokovic was well aware of what he needed to do to compensate for the loss of his top ranking. He wanted to take out his frustration on the man who took his preeminent status away, and he did it today in a fury, the result of which was a comprehensive, convincing, and deeply satisfying victory over his rival in their 38th meeting. Djokovic won it without showing Nadal a break point, 6-3, 6-4.
The greatest source of gratification in the win was the obvious one. As Djokovic so honestly and trenchantly said, “I needed this win today. I really wanted to get my hands on the trophy and win against Nadal, who has been the best player so far in 2013. It’s very important for my confidence. It’s very important mentally and emotionally for me.”
Mentally and emotionally. . . Let’s take a closer look at those two adjectives and how they came into play in the latest chapter of what is already the longest-lived (meetings-wise) rivalry in tennis’ Open era (Nadal still leads, 22-16). The towering narrative in this one was the revenge motif, but it was by no means the only one. And in the ruins of Djokovic’s downfall lie the seeds of his resurrection.
For one thing, even if the rankings and the tug-of-war for No. 1 did not exist, what Djokovic really needed to do at this stage was halt a three-match skid against Nadal. Two of those three losses were in Grand Slams (Roland Garros semis, U.S. Open final), and the other a semifinal at a Masters 1000 (Montreal).
Furthermore, those three matches fell just one set short of going the full 13 sets (the U.S. Open match went four sets), so Djokovic would be entirely justified in blaming himself for letting those matches get away. All that had absolutely nothing to do with the battle for No. 1 this week—a cold war that would have been decided one way or the other, without the rivals even meeting.
The bottom line is somewhat ironic. On a day when it was all about Nadal, Djokovic came up with a big, sorely needed show of force perfectly symbolized by how fully he dominated with his serve. And you can bet that Team Djokovic filed that away for future reference.
Nadal fans are likely to shout, “Wait a minute!” and point out that Rafa could hardly be expected to play his most fierce, focused tennis the day after completing his long slog back to the top.
There’s no doubt Nadal’s mental state could hardly have been ideal on the eve of this clash. But neither that, nor anything else (other than injury) matters when it comes to meetings between these two. You can’t take anything for granted, or discount any element that might spark a change in the dynamics of a single match, or even in the entire rivalry. That takes care of the “mentally” part of Djokovic’s quote.
Emotionally, you don’t have to delve too deeply into armchair psychology to assume that Djokovic didn’t want to give up his perfect record in Beijing (19-0), and at this particular moment most certainly not to Nadal. As a relieved-looking Djokovic said after the final, “I just love the conditions. I love the court and the atmosphere that goes around the tournament. Centre court is exceptional. I try to cherish every moment that I spend here every year.”
Mistake those somewhat predictable words and sentiments for fluff at your peril. The fact is, Djokovic was the defending champ and his attitude toward the title is proprietary. Holding onto it has probably provided him with not just a great emotional boost but, for reasons already mentioned, motivation to look forward with hope and confidence.
It’s hard to imagine the frame of mind Djokovic might have had if he were to leave Beijing a loser to Nadal in the final. So while this week clearly belonged to Nadal at the expense of Djokovic, the 11th hour developments are likely to leave the deposed king ready to pick himself up, dust himself off, and move on. All great rivalries ought to have an unpredictable narrative, and in this one we have it.