The Top 10 Matches of 2013

No. 2 of '13: Dogfight Down Under

Thursday, December 19, 2013 /by

“The first question is: Where do we start?” 

That’s how I began my write-up of Novak Djokovic’s 1-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 12-10 win over Stanislas Wawrinka in the fourth round of the Australian Open on January 20. The words were typed in the press room at Melbourne Park, where the buzz and energy from what we had seen that night were still going strong at 4:00 A.M.

“The length, the stats, the twists and turns, the comebacks and chokes, the backhand bombs and skidding gets, the botched drop shots and challenges not made, and the long fifth set that appeared to leave both players with nothing left, until each of them found something more in the climactic final game. How do you sum all of that up in a few hundred words? How do you do justice to barn-burning, 25-shot all-court points when the only thing you had time to put down in your notebook was “good rally”?

The Nole and Stan Show lasted five hours and two minutes and ended in the vicinity of 1:40 in the morning, in front of a full and raucous crowd inside Rod Laver Arena. In the end, while it wasn’t the cleanest match ever played—the two players hit a combined 120 winners but committed 159 unforced errors—it was one of the rare five-set marathons that was a thrill from start to finish. Wawrinka came out on fire, Djokovic weathered the storm, and they spent the last two sets slugging like heavyweights, weary but standing their ground.

Nearly a year later, winnowed to 22 minutes and shorn of all mishits, Djokovic-Wawrinka is still a thrill, and it looks even better. Here are a few thoughts on a match that now seems very long ago, but which won’t leave the collective memory of tennis fans for many seasons to come. Melbourne Park, where the players are fresh and the bounce is true, has produced more than its share of high-quality classics over the last two decades. This was only a fourth-rounder, but it takes its place among those classics, and it lands at No. 2 on my list of the best matches of 2013. Even its scoreline, which is very similar to my favorite score of all time, Bjorn Borg's 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7(16), 8-6 win over John McEnroe at Wimbledon in 1980, is fun to recite.

*****

—Stan Wawrinka may go down as the ultimate victim of the Big 3, and the ultimate illustration of their dominance. While he has been in the Top 20 for six years, Wawrinka’s career record against Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, and Djokovic is a combined 3-44. He has never won a set from Nadal in 12 matches, he has beaten his countryman Federer once in 16 meetings, and the only time he defeated Djokovic in a completed match was back in 2006. It’s not that Wawrinka can’t hit with those guys—his serve, forehand, and backhand are just as heavy. But he lacks their consistency, their speed, and most of all, their belief. 

You can see very early in this clip, though, that things might be different in this match. It’s not just that Wawrinka is throwing down bombs, he’s also staying within himself. See his first backhand volley; Stan places it perfectly without going for too much. While he makes his share of errors over the next five hours—93 of them—Wawrinka was measuring the ball well. 

—The shot he was measuring best of all through the early going was his backhand down the line. It may have been a surprise that Wawrinka jumped out to a 6-1, 5-2 lead in this match, but it wasn’t a surprise that he did it in a night session in Melbourne. Two years earlier, he had dropped those same down the line backhands on Andy Roddick in a blow-out evening-match win in Laver Arena. It’s a shot that’s almost impossible to read for an opponent, and always startling for a fan.

But Wawrinka wasn't just going for broke against Djokovic. He came in with a tactic—move the world No. 1 wide with the cross-court forehand, finish with the backhand into the open court—and executed it with almost nonchalant precision. As one of the Eurosport commentators says of Stan, “He’s making it look so easy!”

The problem, which you never see on this best-of clip, is that once he gets within reach of a two-set lead, Wawrinka stops hitting those down the line backhand bombs—he stops even attempting them. At 5-2 in the second, Stan began to chip his backhand cautiously, and it cost him; by the time he needed that weapon later in the set, he had lost his rhythm on it. Serving at 5-3 in the second, he took a mid-court backhand at break point and, instead of threading it down the line, steered it cross-court. It hit the tape and went out; for the first time, Djokovic was alive.

—So how about Novak? What was the secret to his Houdini act this time? He started the match slipping all over the place in new sneakers, and he said he never got comfortable. It’s true, despite some astonishing high points in his play, Djokovic couldn't settle in and find his best, most relaxed tennis for a sustained period (though you would hardly know it from watching these highlights). If nothing else, the match illustrated why Djokovic, as well as Nadal, remain head and shoulders above someone like Wawrinka. Even when he's not hitting the ball well, Nole, like Rafa, has another way to win. He can run, grind, drop shot, make returns, and put pressure on his opponent to keep painting the lines. Djokovic can sometimes seem sluggish at the start of three-out-of-five sets matches; he would also lose the first set to Stan at the U.S. Open, 6-2, before winning the match in five. Against most guys, Djokovic knows that time, and the percentages, are on his side.

—The match reached two peaks, both of which are shown here. The first came at the end of the fourth set, which Stan won; the second, even higher summit, came at the end of the fifth, which Djokovic won. 

At 6-5 in the fourth-set tiebreaker, the two stage the most exciting rally of the match, one in which each stroke of excellence is answered with something better, until Wawrinka gets a look at a high forehand. Djokovic guesses cross-court. Wawrinka goes down the line. We go to a fifth.

Twenty-one games and 104 minutes later, we reach peak number two. After spending half an hour looking exhausted, Djokovic does what he does so often: He rouses himself when it appeares he can't be roused again. On his third match point, the two players ignore exhaustion to stage another classic rally. Again, Wawrinka comes forward. Again, he appears for a split-second to have Djokovic at his mercy. But this time the champion is there for the pass. It isn't just any pass, either, but a delicate, dipping, acutely angled cross-court backhand that seems to slow down and hang in the air, long enough to tantalize the crowd and torture Wawrinka as he lunges for it in vain.

— Stan walked off in tears to a standing ovation. It was the start of the best season of his career, but he didn’t know that then.

“We were both tired,” he said, “but I really fight like a dog.”

Djokovic, as he would against Juan Martin del Potro at Wimbledon, ignored the disappointment of losing a close fourth-set tiebreaker and rebounded to win the fifth. And just like with Delpo, he gave Wawrinka an embrace of respect and consolation.

“I’m just really full of joy after this match,” he said. “I feel sorry that one of us had to lose.”

—I’ll finish by letting the commentators on this clip, one of whom was Mats Wilander, sum the match up with their own on-the-spot reactions:

“How good is that?”

“You’ve got to be joking me.”

“Amazing!”

“Wow!”

“Oh my goodness”

“That is just unique”

“No way!”

“Brilliant!”

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