Rafael Nadal’s 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (2) win over Novak Djokovic in Montreal in August wasn’t the year’s most significant contest—not only did it come at a Masters event instead of a Grand Slam, it was a semifinal rather than a final. But looking back, and looking again at the highlights above, it was the popcorn special of the year. As I wrote at the time, “From a ball-striking perspective, this one ranks near the top of the list of the best matches these two have played, and that’s saying something.”
Here are a few winter thoughts on that summer match—sit back and watch the winners fly. As commentator Sam Gore says when the action heats up in the third set: “This is fun.”
—Nadal would win his first 27 matches on hard courts this year; this was No. 10 in that streak, but it may have been his best performance of all on the surface. The chatter at that stage was about how he was moving farther up in the court, hitting the ball flatter and with more pace, and going after his returns.
All of those things were true in the first set of this one. Nadal’s aggressive stance threw Djokovic out of his normal rhythm—Novak double-faulted six times in the first set, and by the middle of the second he had made 12 errors on his forehand side alone. As Rafa’s coach that day, Francisco Roig, later told the Wall Street Journal, “Djokovic was a little bit surprised how much speed came from Rafa in that match. He was like, ‘What happened here, is there something different with this guy?’”
There was something different. After watching Nadal lose to Djokovic in London last month, it’s startling to go back to Montreal and see Nadal so far up in the court and hitting so many down-the-line forehand winners. It’s also easy to see how important that specific shot is for his chances against Djokovic on hard courts. He was making it in Montreal, and he won; he was missing it in London, and he lost.
—Speaking of Roig, in the absence of Toni Nadal, he always coaches Rafa at the three U.S. hard-court Masters. This year, for the first time, an uncle-free Rafa won all of them. Asked what his secret was, Roig told the Journal that he had worked on having Nadal hit to targets on a court. That’s interesting, though hardly a major innovation in tennis coaching. I wondered at the time if Roig’s personality and teaching methods alone hadn’t had something to do with Nadal’s more aggressive, risk-taking, positive play on hard courts. Roig is certainly more upbeat than Toni the tension-maker.
“The best thing I can say of him,” Rafa said of Roig, “is he knows how to work to make you feel that you are improving.”
Of course, Toni returned at the U.S. Open and Nadal’s success continued. But maybe Roig’s voice gave Rafa the encouragement he needed to believe that he could change his game and dominate on hard courts for the first time.
—What about Djokovic? This wasn’t a stellar period for him. Montreal was his first tournament after his lackluster loss in the Wimbledon final, he had struggled in the second round against Denis Istomin, and the following week in Cincinnati he would lose to John Isner. Djokovic begins hesitantly against Nadal, double faulting and getting broken in the opening game.
Yet he still almost comes back to win the first set, and he almost wins the match. It makes me think that when their levels of play are equal, or close to equal, Djokovic still has a slight natural advantage over Nadal on hard courts, the same way Rafa has a slight natural advantage over Djokovic on clay. But it’s close everywhere, and they know it; and the fact that they know it makes their matches and their rivalry even closer. When one of them has the advantage, it seems as if he waits for the other one to come up with his counterattack. Each man knows he’ll never put the other one behind him for good.
In the third set, you can hear one of the commentators, Jason Goodall, refer to “Their epic semifinal in...” I thought he was going to say Paris, in reference to the semi that Rafa and Nole played there earlier this year. But Goodall said “Madrid” instead; he was referring to the semi that they had played in the Magic Box in 2009. The moral being: These two guys have played a lot of epics.
—Djokovic begins to serve better in the second set, and he’s buoyed by a supportive crowd. They like him in Montreal: He had a breakthrough title run there in 2007, he won there again in 2011, and he had spent this week entertaining them with post-match dance moves.
The play reaches its peak in the middle of the third set, when both players have found their ranges. A Djokovic forehand winner is followed by a Nadal backhand winner, which is followed by a Djokovic forehand pass, which is followed by a Nadal drop shot winner, which elicits a round of applause from Djokovic. He wasn’t applauding a few minutes later, though, when Nadal hit him in the face with a ball. (That’s the equivalent of World War III these days, but tensions were defused by both guys at the handshake.) As the third set progressed, Nadal and Djokovic were grunting with every full-blooded cut, but in no way was this “brutal” tennis. The swings grew longer and the noise grew louder, but their shots grew more creative and precise.
—By the latter stages of the third, Nadal had moved back to his normal position, farther behind the baseline. As he says, he can only play up in the court when he’s feeling especially confident. Fortunately for him, and unfortunately for the match, Djokovic hit a bad patch at exactly the wrong time, in the third-set tiebreaker. A string of errors put him down 0-6 and brought the evening to an anti-climactic end.
Not that anyone was complaining. This was a night of gracefully vehement tennis from both men. Wherever they are, whatever round it is, Nadal and Djokovic have a hard time playing a bad match against each other.