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Monday, May 9, 2011

Djokovic proves he's a real threat to Nadal

Novak Djokovic won the biggest tennis match of his life yesterday in Madrid. It isn't like the title, or even the win over world No. 1 Rafael Nadal trumps an Australian Open title, a Davis Cup championship, or back to back hard-court Masters wins (over the same man he beat yesterday). At least not in the order-of-magnitude department. I advance this opinion because almost everyone on planet tennis, including Djokovic and Nadal, knew that this was the ultimate litmus test. This was the "put up or shut up" match (at least in terms of the legitimacy of Djokovic's threat to Nadal).
The world would not have come to an end for Djokovic had he lost yesterday's final, and it certainly will not come to an end for the man who did, Nadal. But Djokovic's inability to win even one match against Nadal on clay until yesterday was glaring, and a powerful mitigating circumstance when it came to bestowing or withholding praise and credit from the Serbian star. Had Djokovic lost yesterday, most people would have hit the re-set button in their minds, writing off to some degree Djokovic's undefeated streak and previous 2011 performances as an impressive and pleasant episode circumscribed neatly by a higher reality once the hard-court segment ended. Djokovic would have seemed good—awfully good—but not really good enough. Part of a Gordian knot at the top of the game, the "third man" who could accomplish some things but not others.
It didn't work out that way. For all I know, Nadal will wax Djokovic in Rome, or Paris, with the loss of just six games. But that's not going to change the fact that on May 8, Novak Djokovic demonstrated that he could step up and handle what probably is the ultimate test in tennis: beating Rafael Nadal on red clay. And he did it in straight sets. Today, Djokovic can claim to be the best player in the world, no matter what the rankings say. He calls the tune.

But that Djokovic did it is less interesting than how he did it. I already filed a post early this morning over at ESPN on five takeaways from the Mutua Madrid Open final, and I want to elaborate on what to me is the most interesting of those five details — the way Djokovic makes his opponent's side of the court look twice as big as his own. The last person who had that facility in a big match was Juan Martin del Potro, in his 2009 U.S. Open final with Roger Federer. Both Djokovic and del Potro are experts at penetrating the other side of the court; del Potro is most effective with his forehand, while Djokovic does it with that spectacular two-handed backhand—a shot that puts all of Roger Federer's past woes in those Nadal forehand vs. Federer backhand exchanges into a new, sharper perspective.

When you can grow the court on the other side, it's that much easier to own the baseline. And if you can own the baseline and receive and positively return your opponents best shots, you're on the way. The greatest lessons we've received in that department were delivered not by an ATP stud but a WTA icon who hailed from roughly the same neck of the woods as Djokovic, Monica Seles.
It's awfully easy to jump on the Djokovic bandwagon today, but you could see this coming. And frankly, Nadal helped bump the process along with the way he played. It was downright foolish of him to keep assaulting Djokovic with those forehand-to-backhand shots. He was on the losing end of too many of them. I don't wish to be cruel here, but if you can reap great rewards with that strategy against a Roger Federer, there's no reason you should shy away from using it against any other right-hander. But at some point, I imagine pride subtly entered into the equation as well. Because for Nadal, it's always been less about, Can I break this guys's backhand down, than, How long will it take to break it down?
You have to tip your hat to the way Djokovic handled that Nadal forehand; I mean, reams have been written about how much more violently Nadal's topspin rotates, and how much bite and jump it has, yadda-yadda-yadda. It's a great shot, no doubt about it. But keep in mind that spin slows the ball, and so does a high bounce. If you can handle the topspin and bounce, you suddenly find yourself with surprisingly appealing and productive options. But that's one whale of an "if.".
Djokovic handled the topspin very well yesterday, although I felt Nadal made it a little easier for him than it might have been due to relatively poor penetration. But that's an occupational hazard for anyone who relies as heavily on topspin as Nadal. Topspin can do an awful lot for you, but one thing that nobody has quite perfected yet is how to put a lot of mustard on the ball and still have it drop on or very close to the baseline, shot after shot. Therefore, the player who uses heavy topspin will always be—at least in theory—at the mercy of one who hits relatively flat, at least if the latter is capable of executing at an extremely high yet always possible level.
If Djokovic made the other side of the court look big, Nadal at times made Djokovic's side look small. On Nadal's side, the sidelines and baseline seemed like an advisory: Warning, you will soon be running out of court and crashing into Ion Tiriac's box. . . For Djokovic those lines were boundaries in a way that had little to do with the customary "in" and "out" business. They proscribed the area in which Nadal had to play—and more important, in which Djokovic wanted to make him play. And it worked.
I expect in future matches Nadal will get better penetration while sticking with his basic game plan, and that he'll serve better and put himself into position to do what I felt, even days ago, was the main task for both men—to own the baseline. This tension between the spin game and the (relatively) flat game is one of the enduring strategic dimensions of tennis; representatives of each school take their turn at the top of the game, invariably making pundits and students of the game smack their foreheads and exclaim, "Duh!"
Yesterday was, for me, one of those "Duh!" moments.

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