Now we've reached that brief, awkward stage when the tennis season is over, but it's not yet over over.
Yesterday Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal played the final match of the ATP tour’s World Tour Finals—you obviously can’t get any more final than that, right? Yet no sooner had the celebratory confetti dropped to the court in London's O2 Arena than Rafa and Nole began talking about their next set of matches, on an exhibition tour that they’ll join later this month in South America. “I actually see him more than I see my Mom,” the Djoker joked, before boarding a plane for Belgrade to begin getting ready for the Davis Cup final, which starts this Friday. Surely Nadal, the man with the creaky knees, would take a day or two off now? Not just yet. He got on a plane heading for Necker Island in the Caribbean, to do some hitting and giggling with the island’s owner, Richard Branson, and friends. Afterward, Rafa will meet up with Nole in Chile and Argentina. Then he’ll get some rest.
OK, so we can’t wrap up 2013 today. But we can wrap its last tour event, which served both as a fitting cap to this season and an intriguing peek into a few possibilities for 2014. Here are four ways of understanding this year’s World Tour Finals.
1. As the possible culmination of another chapter in the rivalry between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic
Ideally, a tennis duel should have momentum shifts on a regular basis, but it rarely works out that way. Chrissie dominated Martina, and then Martina dominated Chrissie. Borg quit when McEnroe turned the tables on him. Nadal built a lead on Federer, and has kept building. But Rafa and Nole really do go back and forth. When one of them has the advantage, it doesn’t mean he’ll have it for long; it means the other man will be motivated to find a way to change the dynamic again.
This fall, that man was Djokovic. Losing the No. 1 ranking to Nadal at the U.S. Open turned out to be the key to unlocking his season. Novak finished with 22 straight wins, two of which came over Rafa, and he ended a year of big-match losses with a big-match win. Earlier in 2013, it had been Nadal who had moved forward and played more aggressively, and successfully, against Djokovic on hard courts. In London, it was Djokovic who stepped up to the baseline, controlled the middle of the court, and pushed Nadal back.
In the process, Djokovic showed again that he has the more natural game for hard surfaces, and that he’ll always be a difficult match-up for Nadal. The key moment of their 39th encounter came at 3-3 in the first set. Djokovic had started with a 3-0 lead, before giving it back. Now Nadal, who began nervously, was loose, moving well, and hitting with grunt-fueled oomph. On the first point, he pushed Djokovic out of position with an inside-out forehand and briefly had the advantage in the rally. But Djokovic took it right back with a cross-court backhand that surprised Nadal. Rafa eventually sent a down-the-line forehand wide; the momentum was back with Djokovic, and he would win the next three games for the set. No one can hit that backhand on Rafa, and turn the tide from defense to offense against him, the way Djokovic can.
Rafa said the crucial factor in the match was the serve: Nole had his working, and he didn’t. It’s true, Djokovic’s serve helped him immensely yesterday, including the scream-inducing ace that set up his third and final match point. But just as important was another shot that Nadal didn’t have: His down-the-line forehand. He had hit it well the previous day against Federer, but he overcooked it all evening against Djokovic. Rafa needs that forehand to break the rally patterns that favor Djokovic, but he has to hit it extremely well to be effective against the speedy, bendy Serb. It looked like Nadal felt the pressure to make it perfect yesterday.
You may wonder, as I briefly did, why Nadal spent so much time so far back in the court. Doesn’t he know, after his success this year, that he should be farther in on hard courts? The thought reminded me of something Rafa said this summer, when he was asked about his positioning. He said that it wasn’t the tactics that led to his good play; it was his good play that led to the tactics. In other words, it isn’t as easy as simply taking a step forward in the court whenever he feels like it. Nadal has to be hitting the ball especially well before he has the confidence to move out of his traditional comfort zone and hit it earlier. Only against Federer in London did he appear to be feeling that confidence.
2. As an ambiguous harbinger for their rivalry in 2014
Now the question becomes: Who has the advantage between Djokovic and Nadal? Is it still Rafa, the world No. 1? Or has Djokovic, with his two wins this fall and mostly dominant performance yesterday, caught up? Who will feel the need to change the dynamic the next time they play, and who will be content to try to repeat the past? Is one of them still at a disadvantage? Because historically, that's the player who will find a way to win again.
It feels to me, after they went 3-3 in 2013, finished 1-2 in the rankings, divvied up almost every significant title, and traded long winning streaks, that Nadal and Djokovic are all-even going into the new season. As I’ve written a few times lately, the last few years show that a strong fall can lead to a strong start to the following season, so in that sense you might favor Djokovic in early 2014. But outdoor tennis in Australia is different from indoor tennis in London. As long as the roof stays open in Oz, Nadal should be the co-favorite. I look forward to the next chapter in their story together.
3. As a step not taken by Juan Martin del Potro
It all looked so promising for the big Argentine. He had played some of the best tennis of his career over the previous month. He was up 3-0 in the third set on Roger Federer, a past nemesis, in their round-robin match on Saturday. He was going to face Rafael Nadal, a man he had straight-setted three weeks earlier, in the semifinals. You could easily imagine del Potro reaching his second final in London and making himself a smart title pick for Australia.
Then he lost seven of the next nine games. Granted, Federer raised his level, especially his defensive level, to vintage heights. But del Potro, who also led 3-1 in the second set, should have finished this match off. He should have finished it because it would have gone some distance to establishing him in his own mind as the favorite when he plays Federer next year. He should have finished it because a win would have left him with only the Top 3, Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray, as stronger consensus contenders at the Grand Slams. He should have finished it because he’s 25 and is entering his prime, while Federer is 32 and past his. He should have finished it because in Delpo's long climb back from surgery, this was the next step. Now we have to keep wondering when he’s going to take it.
4. As a soberly hopeful sign for Roger Federer’s 2014
Before he exited London, Federer said that he thought “something is possible for next year.” He meant that as a positive, I think, but it’s still a pretty vague hope. Federer says he wants to win titles again, and that short of being No. 1, he doesn't care about his ranking. That does seem like a healthy way for him to look at things. Even if he can't take home another title at Wimbledon, or beat his closest rivals very often—he was 0-7 against Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray this year—Federer still wants to win tournaments, and still craves that feeling. That's good.
As for his game, you would have to say that, judging from where he was this summer, that he finished the year on an up note. Instead of losing to the Stakhvoskys and Robredos and Delbonises of the world, he lost to the Nadals, Djokovics, and del Potros, and he came up with a couple of Top 10 wins at the end. That’s not a fall that portends a return to No. 1, as it did in 2012. But it’s not a terrible place for him to be. The decline is inevitable, but over the last few weeks he showed that, body willing, it can still be gradual rather than drastic. Something, as Federer said, is still possible.