Head Games

Saturday, June 07, 2014 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

“It's a very wide and very big court. He likes to have that visual effect, because it appears that he gets every ball back, you know. He feels more comfortable when he plays on the bigger court. That's one of the reasons why he's so successful here.”Novak Djokovic, on Court Philippe Chatrier, looking ahead to his meeting with his Rafael Nadal in Sunday’s final.

PARIS—Okay, let the (mind) games begin!

You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to recognize that this match is being discussed in terms of psychological and emotional factors even more than the familiar Xs and Os. Whatever happened to all the palaver about the battle to open up the court for the down-the-line backhand, or a comparison of slice backhands? There was none of it in the semifinal post-match presser of either man yesterday.

This is what you get when you take two guys whose games match up beautifully (for the fans, if not each of the principals) and throw them in the pit with each other 41 previous times (Nadal leads the rivalry, 22-19). But does anyone really think that Nadal really “likes to have that visual effect” that make his retrieves look even greater than they are?

Oddly enough, the voice I hear in that quote is not that of Djokovic, but his co-coach (with Marian Vajda), Boris Becker. A talented amateur psychiatrist himself, Becker may very well have fed that line to Djokovic in a transparent attempt to make those sensational Nadal gets seem a little less dispiriting than they otherwise might be in the heat of battle. And there’s nothing wrong with that. The comfort Djokovic might take from it at some moment in the upcoming match might even help him successfully conclude his quest for a career Grand Slam.

Both Nadal and Djokovic were peppered with questions that they might have answered lying prone on a leather couch today, and the enthusiasm with which they fielded the queries and provided thoughtful answers was impressive.

Djokovic, on having the “upper hand” thanks to his four-match winning streak against Nadal:

“Well, talking about the upper hand, I don't know how much upper hand I have, really. You have to take in consideration the results that he had in Roland Garros and that I had in my career. I think there is no doubt that he is the favorite to win the title there. But, okay, I have been playing some good tennis. The win in Rome a few weeks ago against him in the final definitely gives me confidence and hopefully self-belief before the finals in our match.”

Nadal, on the same subject:

“Talking about confident or less confident because he beat me four times, but he never beat me here, it is true that I prefer to be in a position that I beat the opponent that I gonna play four times than in the other position. So probably he will come to the match mentally a little bit better than me because he beat me the last four. But at the same time, my feeling is I am doing the things better and I am playing better again, so that's a positive feeling for me.”

In other words, each man is saying, ‘Here, here’s this beautiful thing, this pressure, it’s a gift from me to you.’ And the other is replying, ‘Oh no, I couldn’t accept that, it would be too much, thanks, but please, you keep it, you’ve earned it. I wouldn’t feel right.’

In a way, this is wonderful stuff. All the fat has been boiled off this rivalry. Oh, sure, there’s always room to discuss the finer points of the game: Strategy, tactics, technique, and the way the styles of these two men match up. But let’s face it, none of that means all that much anymore, not to us, and not to them.

What’s happening here, actually, is that everyone is just talking about which guy has greater reason to be mentally stronger, or has presented greater proof that he’s mentally stronger. And you know what? You can throw all that right out the window, along with the theory that Nadal likes this court so much because it makes him appear more athletic than he really is.

The reality is that there’s absolutely no telling what might happen on Sunday, and that’s the greatest thing about it.

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