Death in the Afternoon

by: Steve Tignor | December 22, 2009

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There’s an ominous look to the red clay as this highlight reel begins. The bright midday sun in Madrid has baked it back to its elemental state; the court appears to be as dry and dusty as a desert, as hostile as the surface of Mars. It’s a place where you might go out to play a friendly tennis match and not come back alive. Just ask Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.

Their semifinal at the Madrid Masters was the third time they clashed during the clay season. The first two encounters, in the finals in Monte Carlo and Rome, had been stylishly dramatic affairs. But this one took the Spaniard and the Serb as far into their reserves—physical, psychological, spiritual, vocal—as either of them has ever gone. Neither player would be the same afterward. The winner, Nadal, would lose for the first time in six matches to Roger Federer the next day, suffer an upset at the hands of Robin Soderling at the French Open two weeks later, withdraw from Wimbledon, fail to win another tournament, and end the ATP season on an all-time low note in London. A visibly drained Djokovic would also be upset at the French, and would go without a title until making a surge at the tail end of the year. While they were in free fall, Federer, who hadn’t beaten Nadal or Djokovic in 2009 before this event, won in Paris and at Wimbledon without facing either of them. It may have been only the third-best match of 2009, but the Massacre in Madrid was the season’s most pivotal. If you want to get an idea of what it did to the guys who played it, check out this 15-second clip of Djokovic from his press conference afterward.

I was on vacation in Madrid during this tournament, and the strong sunlight at the start of the match is enough to bring back very vivid memories of the trip and the city—I don’t think you can have a memory of Madrid that isn’t vivid. The sun in that elevated, land-locked metropolis seems to hang right in the middle of the sky all day. It wasn’t just warm in spring; the sun felt closer, a part of your daily existence. Under it I ate stingingly fresh shellfish—how does it get all the way to Madrid in that state?—at a beloved hole in the wall called Ribeiro de Mino. Everyone orders one entrée, an intricately and perilously structured mound of prawns, crabs, barnacles and other gnarled sea creatures; it’s an artwork. Speaking of which, I also stood in awe at the Goyas and Velazquezes in the Prado and Picasso’s Guernica across the street at the Sofia. Wandered the regal and immaculately festive grounds of the city’s central park, the Retiro. Found a cool Spanish-language poster for the movie Blow Up and an almost-as-cool set of mustard-colored New Balances. And, on the day of this semifinal, strolled through the streets of the upscale Salamanca neighborhood, until I noticed Djokovic’s blue shoes dancing around on a TV set inside a café.

Earlier in the week I’d been out to the tournament site, the Magic Box, for a day, and I’d planned to go again for the final—this seemed like the right balance of sight-seeing and tennis-watching. But how many times do you poke your head into a café and see Nadal and Djokovic on the flat screen? I had to stop and see how this installment of their rivalry, which has produced so much jaw-dropping tennis in the last three years, was playing out. This is what I wrote when I posted about the match in May:

In the back of the café are three fellow tourists from the U.S., a mother with her teenage son and daughter. The boy was rooting for Djokovic, the girl for Nadal. We had the place to ourselves for a moment. I was thinking that I’d yet to find any spot in Madrid—bar, restaurant, shop, you name it—that was this quiet, that wasn’t vibrating with humanity. Before I could finish the thought, the noise of laughter and chatter had filled the room, and a dozen or so young men and women were streaming through the door.

Spanish or not, anyone who has ever been to a wedding would recognize this group. A marriage ceremony had just ended in a church around the corner, and this set of friends has escaped for beers and cigarettes. The men stood a little awkwardly in dark suits and ties; the women sat down around them on stools, taking the opportunity to get off their feet. Everyone smoked and smiled and drank, and there was relief in the way they swayed as they faced each other in a semicircle. The pressure of the formal occasion was off.

They also watched Nadal, their countryman. In the time they were in the café, his semi with Djokovic went from being one more entertaining slugfest into a classic. As the third set wound into its fourth hour and toward an inevitable tiebreaker, their conversation was repeatedly punctured by an “Ah!” or a “Si!” or a “Vamos!” or any number of involuntary blurtings that sports fans everywhere recognize as the sounds of impassioned disbelief. After each one, the whole group stopped talking and turned their heads to the screen.

There they saw a heavyweight fight on dirt. Through dint of effort, Nadal had shrugged off his earlier constricted form and was swinging freely. If anything, Djokovic was even freer; he wasn’t stroking the ball, he was clubbing it, but his viciousness retained an elegance. The wedding party may have had a reception to attend, but there was no way they could leave now.

***

Looking at that heavyweight fight again seven months later, this is what I can add:

—Tennis Channel commentator Jason Goodall says late in the match, “I’m running out of superlatives.” But the only one we hear, over and over, is “Brilliant!” Until Robbie Koenig chimes in with an equally appropriate “Ridiculous!”

—How many times has Djokovic started out on fire against Nadal only to find that he can’t quite maintain that level long enough? He goes up 3-0 here, and seems to be making especially good use of his wide serve in the deuce court. His ability to take a Nadal forehand and send it down the line with his backhand will always make him a tough match-up for Rafa, no matter what the surface.

—Late in the first you can see Nadal find his feet. He starts to build enough confidence to hit down the line with abandon. He’s not always confident enough to do that.

—It’s a shame Nadal doesn’t make it to the net more. He may have the best overhead in the game. Not only does he rarely miss it, he rarely fails to spike it with authority for a clean winner. And if a lob is high and deep, he’s adept at taking a little off it and slicing the smash into a corner where his opponent can’t reach it.

—Grunting in men’s matches is less conspicuous than it is women’s matches. You wouldn’t expect anything else in this one.

—One negative note: As compelling as the rallies were, this match was played at a very slow pace. It took four hours, but as Federer said, “those guys take their time.” Long breaks between points don’t usually bother me when I’m in the stadium. But when I’m watching on TV, without a DVR, it can sap my viewing energy.

—By the third set, Nadal is the one on top of the baseline and Djokovic is doing the running. With each game, Nadal’s headband moves a little farther up his forehead while his forehands get slugged with a little more reckless abandon. Like the clay below these guys' feet, the match in its later stages feels like tennis at it most elemental.

—The third-set tiebreaker speaks for itself. The match reached its peak and reached its end at the same time. So did 2009 for both of these guys.

***

I’ll finish the same way I finished in May:

The wedding-goers eventually stopped talking and just stared at the screen. Blue shoes or yellow sleeves, both guys—Djokovic exasperated but valiant right to the last point, Nadal willing himself to believe the day could end with a victory and having come too far not to make it happen—commanded our attention. Nadal’s celebration of this win, which he had manufactured for the home fans on an off day, could be set in stone and placed in front of the Magic Box. He landed prone on his back, hands at full stretch above his head, his body rigid as a statue. No town likes a party more than Madrid, whatever the occasion, so it’s fitting that in this city we saw a tennis match that was more than just a thrill or a battle or a spectacle. Nadal-Djokovic was a celebration of everything we call competition.

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