Monday, 30 January 2012

The Monday: What a Match! Edition

From best to worst, ever person who plays professional sport at the highest level spends hours leading to days, adding up to years, practicing the skills that will raise their game to the highest possible level. This ranges from the fundamentals- knocking in the three-foot putt for birdie, keeping your cover-drive down and out of the grasp of eager opposition fielders - to the more elite talents- bending the thirty-yard free-kick over the wall and into the top-corner, slotting the drop-goal under duress off your wrong foot. Players at the top of their sport possess the ability to take the most difficult of skills and execute them in high-pressure situations in competition. But these flashy, high-end skills are not enough to make one transcend generations. To combine the ability to cause sharp intakes of breath from a wondrous crowd, with metronomic, unfailing fundamentals is what separates those that are merely good from those who are era-spanning great.

I joined yesterday's Australian Open final at the back-end of the second set. Djokovic, number one seed, had lost the first set 7-5, but held a break of serve and a 4-2 lead in the second. A hold each later and Djokovic was serving for the set at 5-3. He led 30-0 and created three set points for himself, but Nadal, with trademark tenacity saved each in turn before setting up his own break-point. Djokovic missed his first serve. A pressure situation no doubt, but the second serve is one of those fundamentals, practiced every day on the training courts. Professional players rarely dump their second serves in the net- to do so is a cardinal sin. To avoid this the shot is hit at height over the net, with the requisite topspin to dip the ball in near the back of the service box. Djokovic sent his serve with the necessary height, but the topspin was lacking. The ball stayed on a relatively flat course once it had cleared the net, landing long of the service line. Big error, and Nadal had the break back. Minutes later, however, and Nadal was set point down, on second serve. Whilst, the right-handers top-spin serve sees the ball move in the air in a 12-to-6 fashion (in a clockface sense from top to the bottom), the left-handers has a more 11-to-5 movement out towards a right-handers backhand, a shot with slightly more slice hit at a slightly lower trajectory. The difference in physics made little difference to the outcome, however, as Nadal, in similar fashion to Djokovic, sent his serve long, levelling the match at one set-all. Two games, two big fundamental errors, one by each player. In a match that was to go another three-and-a-quarter hours, it was pretty much the last example of fallibility either man showed.

People talk of a top four in men's tennis but a look at the facts suggest that over the past eighteen months Nadal and Djokovic have been forming their own duopoly at the head of the men's game. Andy Murray is showing signs of closing the gap yet the major victories at grand slams continue to elude him, if now by a matter of points rather than games or sets. Roger Federer's record speaks for itself, but since he last won a Grand Slam (the Australian in 2010) there have been eight Grand Slam finals (including yesterdays) all of which have been won by either Nadal or Djokovic and four of which have been contested between the two. Federer is widely (and rightfully in my view) considered the greatest player to have ever played the game. But Nadal has a 17-9 career record against him. What are you if you're better than the greatest? Then Djokovic, since he began his ascent up tennis' Mount Olympus in January 2011, has gone 4-1 against Federer and 7-0 against Nadal. If you're better than the guy who's the greatest ever AND dominate the guy who dominates the guy who's the greatest ever, what does that make you? Tennis fans could talk themselves into a metaphysical crisis trying to come to some rational conclusion within such debates. Thankfully, the play on court provides some quite phenomenal respite from such quandary's.

Djokovic did in the third set what he's done to nearly everyone he's played in the last year. In attack he mixes stunning with precision with flat, tracer-like ground strokes, whilst on defence he chases everything down, combining a sprinters pace with an agility that allows him to contort his body into the kind of positions you can normally only find model wooden men twisted into. Through the third he had Nadal doing shuttle runs from corner-to-corner on the baseline. He would drive Nadal backwards before chipping a delicate dropshot just over the net, enough to draw a desperate sprint from Nadal, but not enough for him to actually get there, leaving the number 2 seed like the kids who keep dropping 10 pence pieces into the machines at the arcade not realising they're never going to win as the money inside is glued down. It was cruel and it was emphatic. From breaking Nadal to take a 3-1 lead he held twice to love before breaking Nadal to love at 5-2 to take the set. Momentum, a factor that can swing back-and-forth throughout the course of a five-set encounter, was firmly behind the man who had so-dominated 2011.

When Djokovic won the Australian Open in 2008 it seemed that he was ready to join the Federer-Nadal cabal which dominated Grand Slam tennis at that time. The next couple of years, however, were to be a period of unfulfilled promise. Whilst Djokovic reached several Grand Slam semis, too many Slam defeats came not at the hands of the perpetual 1 and 2 seeds, but to lower-ranked players such as Jugen Melzer, Tommy Hass and Tomas Berdych. In another era of men's tennis, where the depth of quality was spread fairly evenly across the top 20 or so players, losses like this wouldn't have been much of an issue. In an era with Federer and Nadal it meant he could only be best of the rest. Then, in 2011 Djokovic brought to the court an improved game, a body prepared to endure challenges that before it would have shirked, and most importantly a mental attitude that believed he belonged at the top. What resulted was a 70-6 record and 10  Tour titles, including 3 Grand Slams. He had elevated his game not just to the level of Nadal and Federer, but beyond it.

At the beginning of the fourth set Djokovic maintained the high gear that had driven him through the second and thirds. In top-level tennis where breaks of serve are rare, serving first in a set provides a small mental advantage over your opponent. With each hold of serve of your own you take the lead. All the guy the other side of the net can do is keep up. In this case Djokovic was streaking ahead, holding to love, or confidently averting danger with a number of firmly struck winners. Nadal was clinging to the Serb's retro 90s tennis shirt, each time facing a battle to hold serve and level the score. Finally, at 4-3 Djokovic Nadal slipped to 0-40 on his own serve. What followed embodied both the mental and the physical facets of Nadal's game that make him the player he is. At 0-40 he finished a punishing rally by skipping round a backhand and whipping his trademark forehand with lasso finish on the crosscourt angle for a winner. A strong serve saved the second break point.  At 30-40 another baseline encounter ensued. Eventually Nadal pushed Djokovic out to his forehand, the Serb returned, deep but fairly centrally to the Nadal backhand. As Djokovic pushed off his right foot, anticipating the Spaniard taking the pinball approach and stretching him onto his backhand, Nadal spied his opportunity. He sent the ball back the direction it had came. It passed Djokovic by only a couple of feet, but wrongfooted he could only let it pass like a rugby player left for dead by a neat sidestep. Two strong serves won the game and we were back to 4-4.

There followed a brief rain delay in which the Melbourne grounds crew took to the court like a colony of fluorescent worker ants and began drying off the playing surface with towels. The brief delay favoured neither player, and roof closed, both held serve twice to take the set to a tie-break. Djokovic moved to within two points of the title at 5-3, before netting a simple crosscourt forehand on his serve. It didn't feel right for Djokovic to win the match at this point. It would have felt like stopping the 100m final at the 70m mark. Nadal rallied, held both his service points, and took his first set point when Djokovic pushed a forehand wide. Call it gutsy, call it ballsy, call it what you like. In the fourth Nadal showed guts, balls, cajones galore. We were heading to a fifth set.

I'm no great fan of Nadal. His style of tennis is somewhat industrial, more of a machine to Federer's artwork or Murray's variety show. There's the gamemanship, the delays between points as he flicks back hair and adjusts his shorts like a fidgeting child. But most of all there's the way that on-court he just doesn't seem to get any enjoyment out of the game he's so bloody good at. It appears he gets no individual enjoyment out of points, instead seeing them as merely a means towards an end. Instead of the old stamp collector who gets enjoyment out of each item he adds to his collection, on-court Nadal appears more akin to one forced by means to collect food stamps. There is no enjoyment in the process, it is something that just has to be done. For me, the absolute level of seriousness makes it hard to like the player. However, there is little doubt that it is that intensity that has driven him to all the titles, and it is that intensity that clawed him back into the Championship match last night.

It's a fact that men's tennis is a bigger draw than the women's game. That's why, while both female semis took place during the day on Thursday, the men's were scheduled in for the prime-time sessions on Thursday and Friday evenings. I understand the commercial aspect but it's an arrangement that shows little respect for the notion of trying to ensure a fair build-up for the players that make it to the final. Whilst Nadal went through a no-doubt tough encounter with Federer on Thursday night, he had an extra day of rest on Djokovic, who went 4 hours 50 minutes in a barnstorming confrontation with Andy Murray a day later. Entering the 5th set logic suggested that Nadal would be the less weary of the two, and with the swing in his favour from the fourth, favourite to take the title. From 30-15 up, serving from 3-2 down, Djokovic missed shots on three consecutive points handing Nadal the break. But if there was one thing this match didn't do it was the expected. At 30-30 in the next game Djokovic popped up a tired looking volley to the Nadal backhand. Nadal closed in like an eagle descending upon a helpless vole and missed the backhand...yeah, he missed the backhand. Next point Djokovic took his opportunity and it was back on serve.

At 5-5 a rejuvenated Djokovic broke Nadal. He saved break point in the next games, before setting up championship point. Big first serve down the middle to the Nadal backhand and the Aussie Open title sat up for him in midcourt. He put the forehand lethally past a Nadal treading water on the baseline, retaining his Australian title, earning his fifth career and third consecutive Grand Slam (joining Laver, Sampras, Federer and Nadal as the only men to record three titles in a row). He also recorded his seventh straight victory over his Spanish opponent in a final. If Nadal merely toppled Federer from his throne then in his respective dominance of the Spaniard Djokovic is working on an act of regicide. Yet one cannot write off the man from Majorca. Until Federer, Murray or someone else can crack the duo's current dominance it will remain a reign of one in a town of two.

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