King of Hard Courts

Sunday, March 30, 2014 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

MIAMI, Fla.—Sports commentary is awash in military terminology and metaphors; they’re a handy crutch for the ink-stained wretches who convey the news. But in at least one important way, certain sports—tennis up high on that list—are like war. And war and tennis almost always come down to the same thing: The battle for the control of territory.

World No. 2 Novak Djokovic won that battle today against world No. 1 Rafael Nadal in the final of the Miami Masters 1000, thanks to a stunning display of strategy backed up by devastating tactics abetted by impeccable execution. The result was a resounding re-affirmation of Djokovic’s quality as a champion and evoked echoes of his greatest year, 2011. His 6-3, 6-3 triumph earned him a place alongside Roger Federer as the only two men who have won Indian Wells and Miami back-to-back on two different occasions.

Before we go much further into this analysis, I feel obliged to issue this caveat: All the strategies and tactics ever conceived don’t amount to a hill of beans if the enemy is raining down aces and cleaning lines with his shots. This was not one of those days for Nadal. After he squandered a break point in the very first game by drilling a backhand into the net, Djokovic got his teeth into the match and never let go.

“I had the break point,” Nadal said later, identifying the scant few positives he could think of. “And I played a few games and a few points the right way, with the right intensity. But for the rest, it’s easy to analyze. The opponent was better than me. That's it.”

Djokovic was better, though, in ways that shed some light on the nature of this match-up and rivalry—now 40 matches strong—ways that will undoubtedly apply in their future meetings. Most important, today showed the advantage Djokovic has in that critical battle for territory because of his finest if not most obvious strength—the remarkable balance in his game, which at its best can take full advantage of the unbalance in Nadal’s.

Put it this way: Djokovic is like the military commander whose base of operations is in the middle of the territory he must defend and from which he must attack. That leaves him more or less equally close to and far from all his—and Nadal’s—important outposts. Nadal, by contrast, operates from a corner of his territory because of the way he overplays to the backhand side. From there, he’s a long way from some critical parts of the territory he has to defend.

The disadvantage of Nadal’s positioning, and all the territory it forces him to leave unprotected, makes him vulnerable to a man with a game as balanced as that of Djokovic. It also helps Djokovic enormously that he plays closer to the baseline than does Nadal.

For example, Djokovic’s gut reaction when he’s pushed back off the baseline is to try to get back on it, somewhere in the center of the court, as quickly as possible. Nadal is often inclined, when pushed back, to linger and fight from there, or to take advantage of all the extra time that being there gives him to ensure that his next shot is a forehand.

There were numerous examples of the way Djokovic exploited the radical prejudice Nadal has for the forehand. One of the most vivid and potentially harmful for Nadal was obvious on those occasions when, instead of hitting a backhand near the sideline, he backpedalled to run around and set himself up for the forehand. He may hit an incredible, inside-out forehand from there, but if he doesn’t he’s giving away the entire court. Physically, it also throws him off-balance and out of position. It’s a high price to pay.

You don’t have to take my word for it. This is what Djokovic said immediately after the match, when he was informed that 65 percent of his shots were directed (or ended up) at Nadal’s forehand: “He serves and moves to his backhand corner, so he opens me the court for the forehand side. But I have to play precise and deep, then choose my moment to take advantage. I think the backhand cross-court (it heads for the lefthander’s forehand) won me the match today.”

Later, he added, perhaps mindful of the upcoming move to clay: “Rafa may be the king of clay, but I think the tactic doesn’t depend on the surface.”

The break that enabled Djokovic to serve out the first set occurred in the sixth game, when Nadal drilled one of his 17 unforced errors, this one a backhand, into the net.

“The turning point for me was at three-two,” Djokovic said. “After the break I started swinging freely. I served very well (he put over 70 percent of his first serves into play) and he had a hard time reading it. I had quite a few free points, which are definitely helpful against Rafa. And I didn’t give him a chance to come back in the match.”

It was dispiriting for Nadal to be broken in the very first game of the second set as well. That break point came at the end of a spectacular rally that vividly demonstrated the advantage Djokovic enjoys by being able to trust either wing with equal assurance.

To be fair, Nadal wasn’t at his best today, and later admitted to feeling sluggish. “I feel that I didn't move as well as I do normally. He was having too much success with every shot, he was able to find the right spot, the right position that was able to put me in negative positions too early in the point. I felt that he played great, but he didn’t need to hit a great shot to be an advantage on the point.”

Nadal went on to make a frank confession. “Playing against him is the worst thing that can happen for me because, talking about the first two shots, he has a better return than mine, and he has a better serve than mine—especially on this surface. And the things that I can do to be on same level as him, or better than him, is when the rally is going, and when the point is becoming intense.”

This win closed the gap in this rivalry to 22-18 in Nadal’s favor. Given how utterly Nadal has dominated the rest of the Grand Slam contenders, it was natural that a reporter asked him if, as a man who loves a challenge, he’s glad that Novak Djokovic “exists.”

“No,” Nadal immediately shot back, an elastic smile erasing the lines of stress on his brow. “I like challenges. . . but I am not stupid.”

Djokovic was told of this exchange, and then the same question was put to him. He took the question more literally, because that’s his way. He sounded senatorial as he explained:

“Well, I'm going to answer differently. I think challenges, big challenges that I had in my career changed me in a positive way as a player. Because of Rafa, and because of Roger, I am what I am today.”

And what Djokovic is today is the King of Hard Courts.

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