Significance without Meaning

Abu Dhabi, Semifinals

Djokovic d. Federer, 6/2 6/1

Ferrer d. Nadal, 6/3 6/2

Novak Djokovic today crushed Roger Federer in less than three quarters of an hour. David Ferrer took slightly over an hour to inflict the same treatment on Rafael Nadal. It is only Abu Dhabi, of course, and therefore only an exhibition, but for ostensibly meaningless results, they gave us plenty to think on.

Barry Cowan, holding forth at yawn-inducing length on Eurosport, declared that this result will no more trouble Federer than it will inspire Djokovic. If both were to meet in the semifinal or final in Melbourne, this encounter would figure exactly nowhere in their reckoning. Elite athletes, he insisted, are particularly good about selectively forgetting when it suits them. He’s probably right, but only to an extent. His words might have rung truer had Djokovic prevailed 6/4 7/5 or something. But a mugging this comprehensive must surely resonate at some level, especially if Djokovic pulls ahead early in these (purely theoretical) future encounters.

Once he’d finished apologising to the crowd – and by extension to the organisers who’ve paid a fortune for him to show up – Federer was willing to admit that exhibition or not, being on the receiving end of so severe a hiding was ‘uncomfortable’. He was forthright in his praise of Djokovic, and rightly so. Perhaps it was the near-total lack of pressure, but I can’t recall Djokovic playing this well even last year. It was a level that will perhaps be familiar to anyone who has watched the pros practice against each other. The most impressive set of tennis I’ve ever watched was between Stefan Koubek and Max Mirnyi on an outside court a few days before the Australian Open about ten years ago, conducted with a degree of ferocity and velocity neither has ever brought to an actual match. Djokovic played like that today. We could say that Federer let him, but I’m not sure the Swiss had much say in the matter. Certainly Djokovic’s reassuring admission that the result merely reflected his having an extra match under his belt sounded hollow. If the Serb can sustain this level in tournament play, then 2011 will come to be seen as less of a stand-out than a foretaste.

Ferrer’s victory over Nadal was arguably more interesting through being less freakish. Much has been made of Nadal’s tender shoulder, but it was never a factor. The real issue was his backhand, and the genuine interest in this match lay in its strong connection to Nadal’s other serious losses in the last few months. I speak namely of the US Open final (to Djokovic), the Tokyo final (to Murray), and his loss to Federer at the World Tour Finals. In every case the world No.2 was completely shut out of the match by having his backhand pressed until it broke.

Ferrer’s tactic tonight was precisely the same. Nearly everything was directed to the backhand, and despite a few frustrated winners, it obligingly fell apart, either through basic error or by falling short. Nadal’s forehand was only brought into play when Ferrer chose to do so, at which point the world No.5 would strike hard and almost invariably catch Nadal off guard. On the few occasions when Nadal gained control of the rally and lined up a forehand he wanted, he was under sufficient pressure to execute that he pulled the trigger either too early or too hard. If Ferrer could lay a racquet on it, he would adroitly redirect the ball back to Nadal’s backhand, and continue pressing until either an error or a short ball was forthcoming. It was a perfect blueprint of how to play Nadal on a hardcourt. All it requires is a rock-solid technique, nimble feet, and the patience of a saint.

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