Indefatigable

US Open, Final

(2) Nadal d. (1) Djokovic, 6/2 3/6 6/4 6/1

Rafael Nadal tonight defeated Novak Djokovic to win his second US Open title, continuing a return to the men’s tour that has surely surpassed even the secret hopes of his most ambitious fans. It has been a comeback to beggar belief, an opinion I’ll continue to maintain despite the fact that Greg Rusedski agrees with it. If anything, Rusedski went further, and summarily declared it to be the greatest comeback in sporting history. One questions both the length and breadth of his historical perspective, given he’d earlier insisted the match was well on the way to becoming the greatest US Open final ever played. It certainly wasn’t that, though it undeniably had its moments. Mike Stobe/Getty Images North AmericaThe longest of these moments was a 54-stroke rally destined to pad out innumerable highlights packages. The best of them came at the very end as Nadal collapsed in ecstasy to the court, victorious in New York once more.

First some numbers, which can as ever be relied upon to render the achievement excitingly comprehensible. This US Open is Nadal’s thirteenth Major overall, which moves him to third on the all-time list of titlists, one ahead of Roy Emerson, and trailing only Roger Federer and Pete Sampras. Since returning to the tour in February he has contested thirteen events, reaching the final at all but one of them (Wimbledon), and winning the title ten times. (This incidentally equals the number of titles Jo-Wilfried Tsonga has won in his entire career). He has won sixty matches, easily the most on tour, and lost just three. Today he became just the third player ever to sweep the main events comprising the US summer, meaning Canada, Cincinnati and the US Open (the other two men were Andy Roddick in 2003, and Pat Rafter in 1998). Overall Nadal has compiled an astonishing 22-0 record on hardcourts this year, and hasn’t technically lost a hardcourt match since Indian Wells last year.

Nadal’s previous US Open title came in 2010, although I’ll court opprobrium and suggest that today’s title is more convincing, insofar as the convincingness of tournament victories is something that can or should be measured. There was a prevailing sense that his first title, for all that it completed his career Grand Slam, was a testament to opportunism. The fast New York decoturf was generally held to be his worst surface. Meanwhile the two best hardcourters at the time – Federer and Djokovic – had fought each other to a standstill in the late semifinal, after Nadal had already breezed past a wearied Mikhail Youzhny, having faced no one more threatening before that. Realistically his path to this year’s final hasn’t been much more taxing: replace Verdasco with Robredo, and a tired Youzhny with a blown Gasquet. The difference is that this time round Nadal was deservedly one of the pre-tournament favourites, and, given his recent results and form, it is perverse to pretend he is now anything but entirely suited to outdoor hardcourts. Favourites always have an easier draw, since by definition they rarely face anyone they are not expected to defeat. He had a favourable US Open draw for the same reason he has favourable draws at Roland Garros: because he earned it.

Nadal might have been a favourite, but he was by no means unbackable, especially when facing the other favourite. Djokovic is still the world number one, even if it is now a rare day that he recaptures the form of his majestic 2011 season, and rarer still to see him sustain it outside of Australia. It’s been the pattern of his year, and it was his pattern in tonight’s final. When Djokovic played at his best, and more importantly, when he thought at his best, he was the better player. But he couldn’t keep it up. Nadal began exceptionally well, once more employing the tactic that had served him well in the French Open semifinal, of pressing hard up the line with his forehand early in the rallies, invariably catching Djokovic out. Djokovic also reprised his strategy from Paris, which was to eschew tactical clarity of any sort, and to avoid the authoritative backhand up the line that once ranked among the sport’s most fearsome shots. The two players combined for a one-sided 6/2 first set.

The change came in the second set, and it had little to do with Nadal, who continued to strike his forehand ferociously. Suddenly he was having fewer of them to hit, and he was increasingly obliged to hit them from less stable positions. Djokovic hadn’t started to strike the ball better, but he was now directing it far more intelligently, which enabled him to control the rallies. Then, having established himself, he did start to strike the ball better, and abruptly revealed the fearsome version of himself from two years ago, the one who would patiently pummel Nadal backhand until it cracked, and who would only bring the Spaniard’s forehand into play at a moment of his choosing. Djokovic romped through the latter stages of the second set, and moved ahead a break in the third.

Then inexplicably, he abandoned this winning game-plan, and fell back into patternless hitting. Why he did so, one cannot imagine. Nadal’s backhand isn’t a poor shot by any standards – even when he isn’t hitting it that well it remains solid, and today he was hitting it well – and perhaps it doesn’t feel so gentle when it’s coming at you. But it certainly doesn’t measure up to his forehand. More importantly, it doesn’t measure up to Djokovic’s forehand, which is the match up that matters, or would have mattered if Djokovic had only maintained it. It would be useful to see Hawkeye data on Djokovic’s groundstroke placement for that period when he was ascendant, as compared to his placement for the rest of the match. I suspect it would be sufficiently revealing that even he as a player might take notice. Certainly it would tell us more than unforced errors, of which Djokovic hit several hundred. Alas, the presiding powers keep their data close, preferring to use them to generate complicated metrics of use to nobody.

Nadal is probably the best player I have ever seen at sustaining apparently mortal blows yet remaining unbowed, having proved his resilience in countless matches, especially against Federer. He knows in his bones that while anyone can ascend to stratospheric heights for a time, even the very best must come down for oxygen eventually. If they don’t, then well-played to them, but if they do . . . Djokovic had been soaring into orbit, but the moment his throat constricted, Nadal leaped forward, and planted his foot on it. I suspect this made it hard to think clearly. With his mind gone, Djokovic’s body soon followed. Before long he was spraying balls everywhere, and was broken again to drop the set. The fourth set wasn’t close, although considering the 6/1 scoreline it wasn’t especially short either. But it wasn’t too long before Nadal was accepting Djokovic’s heartfelt congratulations at the net, while 20,000 onlookers screamed affectionately at them. Nadal moves to an impressive 13-5 in Major finals, while Djokovic falls to 6-6.

CBS had its usual way with the trophy presentation, just as they’d had their way with the schedule. Having learned the lesson of the 2009 final, after which Juan Martin del Potro selfishly attempted to address his supporters in Spanish, the tournament’s broadcaster ensured today’s ceremony was as brief as it was devoid of interest. The whole thing was over in about five minutes. In Melbourne the indefatigable Kia spokesman would have barely begun his vocal warm-ups. Neither Djokovic nor Nadal bothered to dignify Mary Carillo’s inane questions with anything like an answer. Nor did they manage to look more than mildly appreciative as the lavish cash prizes were rapturously announced. Nadal bit into his silverware, and loyal American viewers were whisked away to confront the recurring enigma of Two and a Half Men (now that the smartarse kid has grown up, the enduring mystery of the show’s popularity has been augmented with confusion over which of them is actually the half-man).

Those of us lucky enough to be watching on alternative networks weren’t let off so lightly. Sky Sports had assembled its entire team on the court, though they were still one microphone short. Nadal wandered over for a chat, and hit all his marks: gracious, thoughtful and clearly keen to be elsewhere. Asked if he was going to take a rest now he responded with a chuckle that he had Davis Cup, and then ambled away. After he’d left Rusedski lamented that they hadn’t asked him whether he thought he would overtake Federer’s Major title record. I can’t imagine what Rusedski thinks Nadal’s response might have been.

The more pressing issue is when he’ll overtake Djokovic. The Serb will still be world number one when the rankings are released next week, regardless of what happens in Davis Cup, and the week after that. The change will likely come in Asia, assuming Nadal bothers to play, or maybe even if he doesn’t. Indeed, given he has precisely zero points to defend until February, Nadal enjoys the enviable luxury of being able to choose when and where he retakes the top spot. It must be a pleasant thought. Then again, one imagines that having emphatically claimed his thirteenth Major title, Rafael Nadal hardly requires another reason to feel joy.

14 Comments

Filed under Grand Slams

14 Responses to Indefatigable

  1. Tom Welsh

    “I can’t imagine what Rusedski thinks…”

    There’s a surprisingly obvious reason for that, mayhap.

  2. tootsie

    What a great match that was. They both made some wonderful shots and it was mind boggling to watch when they were both making them during the same rally. It was interesting that in their pressers, both of them noted that they push each other to play to their limit.

    I’ve been p.o.’d about the ATP and their zero point penalties that they apply against players even when said players are injured and aren’t able to play the required tournaments and that pissed-offedness has reached its climax today. Rafa should be #1. It should have been one of his just rewards for winning that slam. The official rankings show him 120 points behind Novak but he has 150 points from Vina del Mar sitting in his Non-Countable category that he can’t use because he has penalties that have to expire first. Fortunately they will drop off within the next two months so by Beijing Rafa should be at the top. It’s tough enough when they’re injured to see their rankings fall but that’s an accepted part of the game but it seems quite unfair to me that their ascent back up the rankings is be impeded because of penalties.

    Rafa though is much more sanguine about these matters than I am so he’s probably just very happy to have won (and I am too) and he’ll be back in his rightful spot at the top soon enough. 🙂

    • I admit I’m not especially outraged on Nadal’s behalf, especially since, as you say, he doesn’t seem too put out. But I can understand how others might feel differently. But not long!

      On a slightly different note: how much tennis do you think he’ll play for the rest of the year? Do you think he’ll bother with Shanghai, or Paris?

  3. OzRonda

    Looked forward to your write -up of this final Jesse and you didn’t disappoint! Brilliant as usual and captures the match so well. I like your reference to the trophy ceremony and the Aussie open sponsor moment – that is so cringe inducing I always squirm at home in front of my TV! Thank you, I enjoyed reading your take on all the US Open action.

  4. roxitova

    Great write-up Jesse. It certainly surpasses anything Bodo or even Tignor had to say in the usual place. Having watched these two with obsessive interest for a few years, I was surprised to see how easily Djok caved after losing that demoralizing 3rd set. It seemed to me he had no emotional rebound, and the technical and tactical elements you describe simply followed suit. Djok in the 2nd and start of the 3rd looked like the 2011 Djok, who nowadays only makes cameo appearances. But Rafa always looks like Rafa, except now not relinquishing court position and a few other losing patterns on HC against Djok.
    But do you really think DJok’s fatal change of play at the end of the 3rd and 4th stemmed from a tactical choice, or a mental meltdown? I think it was the latter.
    I also agree that Djok’s best HC game is still better than Rafa’s HC game, but he cannot sustain it for long periods as he did in 2011. So Rafa’s more sustainable nearly-as-good game trumps it. Rafa himself predicted DJok wouldn’t be able to maintain that level. He was right.
    As you might remember, I’m a huge Rafa fan, but I never would have imagined him coming back like this on HC. Spectacular.
    Glad you mention idiotic Carillo. Unbelievable–first question she asks Rafa upon winning, is how his knees are feeling!!!! He seemed ready for her stupidity.

    • Thanks. Oh I certainly agree that it wasn’t a sound tactical choice to abandon his winning gameplan (I was probably being facetious if I suggested as much). I too think it was a mental meltdown. But for all that it’s much easier to see these things from a panoramic perspective than down on the court, I am always baffled why other top players don’t just pound on Nadal’s backhand all day. So often they do it for a while, have great success, then for some reason stop doing it. I don’t know if they get bored, or overconfident or what. Now I don’t mean to suggest his backhand is a poor shot – even going there all day he’ll burn you with a few winners, especially on passing shots. But compared to his forehand, especially in this kind of form… In those hardcourt matches when other top players do get on top of Nadal, this pattern always figures prominently.

      But then it isn’t only against Nadal. I remember the IW 2011 semifinal, when Federer switched his play up in the 2nd set against Djokovic, and started slicing everything and constantly varying depth, not allowing Djokovic simply to run side to side. Federer romped through that set, moved ahead in the 3rd, then bafflingly went back to hitting over his backhand, and promptly lost.

  5. Jewell

    “Realistically his path to this year’s final this time round hasn’t been much more taxing: replace Verdasco with Robredo, and a weary Youzhny with a weary Gasquet.”

    It looked tricky on paper – full of Kolyas and Dodigs, Isners and Federers – although the projected SF-ist would’ve been easier. At least this time one felt that Djokovic’s draw, as it worked out (but not on paper) was kind of even. You didn’t feel one player got a huge opportunity that way. And the scheduling was decently even, unlike last year when one player got a bit more of a handicap. I like that.

    Think this match fitted a pre-2011 pattern of Nadal-Djokovic matches. Fast Rafa start, slow Novak start, Novak roars back and blitzes for a period, even a set, Rafa digs in and comes back to win as Novak can’t keep up the heights. Not that that was the only pattern, of course.

    • You’re right, it did very much feel like a pre-2011 match, right down to that creeping certainty that Djokovic would fade at the crucial juncture. I recall writing after (I think) Indian Wells in 2011 that he seemed to have discovered a mind free from doubt, and that while he still made errors, he no longer seemed to make mistakes. In other words, being human he could still miss shots, but they were invariably the right shot to go for. That’s no longer the case, and he has certainly rediscovered his capacity for doubt. Of course, he’s still a tremendous player, and not for nothing is the world number one. For the moment.

  6. Jewell

    Meant to say really liked the description of the trophy presentation. 🙂

  7. Loretta Chan-Sam

    Great in-depth article .. thank you. I thought I was the only one who noticed how mean and disrespectfully Carillo behaved when speaking with Djokovic and referring to Rafa as “The Spaniard” and of course asking that ridiculous question after Rafa’s just won the match of the year but I’m pleased to see there are others who concur.

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