The Top 10 Matches of 2013

No. 1 of '13: Love and Suffering

Friday, December 20, 2013 /by

“You need to love the game.”

That's what an exhausted, exhilarated Rafael Nadal said on June 7, when he was asked what it took to win a match like the one he had just played. On that hot summer day in Paris, it had taken every bit of love, and effort, and “suffering,” as Rafa likes to put it, that he could muster.

Nadal had loved and suffered enough to come back from a break down in the fifth set to beat the top seed at Roland Garros, Novak Djokovic, 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7 (3), 9-7. In the annals of their rivalry, this one might be called the Second Epic. It was the mirror image of their Australian Open final from the previous year. That see-saw saga had lasted five hours and 53 minutes, and gone to Djokovic 7-5 in the fifth set. This see-saw saga lasted four hours and 37 minutes and went to Nadal. Each match had featured merciless rallies, brilliant shot-making, and one legendary, match-changing blunder. Nadal himself recognized the parallel.

“I lost a match like this in Australia,” he said in Paris. “This one was for me.”

It was for Rafa, but it was for all tennis fans as well, and it was the match of the year for me. It wasn’t as much fun as my No. 3, Djokovic’s win over del Potro at Wimbledon. And it wasn’t as galvanizing from wire to wire as my No. 2, Djokovic’s win over Wawrinka at the Australian Open. But Nadal and Nole at Roland Garros was a bitter, emotional struggle between two all-time greats, and the most momentous of them all. 

Here’s a look at the eight minutes of it excerpted above (my apologies for the ad that opens the clip).

*****

“You know a match is a good one when neither player can fathom the shots that his opponent is pulling off. Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic spent a fair amount of Friday shaking their heads and smiling in disbelief at their rival’s preposterous play. Nadal couldn’t believe Djokovic’s lunging, line-licking returns or his above-the-shoulder tomahawk forehand winners. As for Novak, he looked for help from his coaches after Rafa dug one more impossible get out of the clay, or hooked another forehand down the line on the dead run. Alas, there was no help for either man. Nadal and Djokovic were back where they belong, way out on the Grand Slam high wire again.”

That was how I described this match on the day that it was played. You don’t see many of those incredulous reactions in this clip, but you do see the shots that inspired them. There was an edge to this one; both men wanted it badly. Djokovic had dedicated the tournament to his recently-deceased first coach, Jelena Gencic, and he said at the start of both 2012 and 2013 that winning Roland Garros, and completing his career Grand Slam, was his biggest goal. As for Rafa, this was still his turf, and he wanted to keep it that way.

—Nadal, unlike his hard-court self this year, spent much of this one well behind the baseline. In the early going, he ceded territory to Djokovic, who had his way in the rallies—sometimes that was a good thing for Nole, sometimes not so good. Watching him pummel forehand after forehand here, I’m surprised his arm didn’t fall off by the end. On clay, it really does require two or three or four perfectly measured shots to get the ball past Rafa. Djokovic ended up at the net 50 times, and won 32 of those points.

—It’s strange to see Djokovic let out a roar after winning the second set, hit a terrific angled forehand to start the third, and then, in the next highlight, find out that he’s 5-0 down. The third set was a throwaway for Djokovic, who won just 12 points in seven games. All of those perfectly measured shots take their toll. 

—“Djokovic always comes back,” Nadal said afterward. To him, it’s as simple as that. Novak did in Paris as well, bouncing back from his third-set collapse and breaking Rafa when he served for the match at 4-3 and 6-5 in the fourth.

While he lost the fifth set, you have to believe Djokovic will win at least one French Open, if not more, in his career. It’s hard to think of another player who transitions so seamlessly between hard courts and clay. On hard courts, Nadal has to put his foot on the gas more than he would like; on clay, Roger Federer has to take his foot off more than he would like. But Djokovic, with no weak spots from the ground and a style that blends offense and defense, pretty much does what he does on both surfaces.

—As the fifth set progresses, the parallels with the 2012 Aussie Open final become harder to ignore. In Melbourne it had been Nadal who had survived a near-death experience in the fourth set, won it in a tiebreaker, and taken a 4-2 lead in the fifth before watching Djokovic storm back for the title. In Paris it was Nole who broke Rafa at 3-4 in the fourth and again at 5-6, grabbed that set in a tiebreaker, and led 4-2 in the fifth before watching Nadal take it all away, 9-7. 

Each time, the loser was haunted by a stunning, crucial lapse. In Australia, with a chance to go up 5-2 in the fifth, Nadal had missed the easiest of backhand passing shots. In Paris, serving at 4-3 in the final set, two games from victory and a chance at his first French title, Djokovic gave away a point at deuce when he ran into the net after hitting what would have been a winning overhead.

—Thinking of those miscues, and of the agonizing nervous intensity that swirled through this match, I wrote at the time:

“It's not the heroics of these two players that I want to remember; it's their flaws. When we look back at the game’s greats, its Borgs and Grafs and Lavers and Navratilovas, too often we talk about them as if they had no imperfections, as if they never choked or played the wrong shot or made a crucial error, never missed an easy pass or ran into the net a second too soon. We know it’s not true, and that they must have been human. But we like to pretend that Gods once roamed the earth, and that they deserve our unquestioning reverence.

Some day we’ll talk the same way about Nadal and Djokovic. In 20 years, when the world’s new No. 1 is struggling in the wind at Roland Garros, we’ll say, 'Rafa never would have let that ball get past him,' or 'Nole would have given that weak serve what it deserved.' But as great as this match between them was, those of us who watched it know that it also revealed their human sides."

—Those human sides were revealed in the seemingly irrational doubts that each man harbored. Djokovic had beaten Nadal everywhere else in the world, and at every other Grand Slam, but there was still doubt in his mind that he could do it in Paris, on clay, over five sets. As for Nadal, he was well ahead in their career head to head, yet he still had doubts about his ability to stay with Djokovic. They had been ingrained in Rafa's mind during his 0-7 run against Novak in 2011-’12.

So they fought each other, and the doubts that they had planted in each other’s minds, into overtime in the fifth set. In Australia, Nadal had succumbed to his nerves. This time, from 2-4 down, he broke out of his defensive posture and rallied with new depth and aggression down the stretch. He would finish with seven more winners than Djokovic, 61 to 54. Rafa even had enough love left for the game to try, and make, a tweener lob at 6-7 in the fifth set.

—As for Nole, he couldn’t sustain his best for long enough. In the closing games, he let himself get distracted by an argument with chair umpire Pascal Maria over the courts, which Djokovic wanted watered. Federer fans will recognize the way this match ends, with a frustrated Djokovic forehand sailing over the baseline; countless matches between Rafa and Roger have ended with the same flailing sense of resignation from Federer. Yet Djokovic is gracious, as always. I like the fact that, despite clashing with the umpire a few minutes earlier, Novak still shakes his hand on the way out.

—"This one was for me.” What I think Nadal meant was that, when you look at this match and the one in Australia, both of which were so close, so hard-fought, so well-played, so topsy-turvy, there’s justice in the fact that both he and Djokovic came away with one win apiece. 

Both matches were won with heroics on one side of the net, and human errors on the other. They could easily be reversed in a future Third Epic. In this way, Nadal and Djokovic are true rivals, as well as partners in their own achievements, and they likely will be for the rest of their careers. A pair of Parisian artists from another age, Braque and Picasso, described themselves as “two mountain climbers, roped together,” scaling the heights of painting. Nadal and Djokovic are their tennis equivalent. At Roland Garros this year, they led each other to a summit. 

*****

That's it from me for 2013. Thanks for reading and commenting; as you can see from the Top 10 matches I've just counted down, it was another great year for the sport. I'll be back January 2, and before you know it we'll be off to Australia again.

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