Monday, 30 January 2012

So exactly why is Nadal turning into Djokovic’s bitch?

The weird thing about the last seven Nadal-Djokovic matches (all of which Djokovic has won) is the way that Nadal, usually when he’s about to go 2-1 down in sets, tends to look utterly bewildered – “little boy lost” is the phrase most often used by English commentators.

It’s the same expression that used to appear on Jimmy Connors’ face on the rare occasions when he was being blasted off the court by McEnroe or Borg - the difference being that many spectators enjoyed seeing a truly nasty creep like Connors humiliated, even if it was by a nasty creep like McEnroe.

At the point when Nadal’s habitual scowl has been replaced by an expression of blank confusion - the rasied eyebrows give it way - it’s a sure signal that he doesn’t have a clue what to do. Yesterday, three break points down at the end of the fourth, the greatest competitor in the sport reeled off some of his best play of the match and took it into a decider. But, despite breaking Djokovic early in the fifth, Nadal still couldn’t best The Serbinator.

So why doesn’t what has worked so brilliantly against Federer, Murray, the earlier edition of Djokovic – and, of course, everyone else - work when Nadal confronts the new Nole (Djokovic’s nickname)?

I’ve been trawling the web and listening to commentators, and these are the best explanations I can find:

1. Djokovic has no weaknesses to exploit (he’s a bit dodgy overhead and his volleying is clumsy, but as he rarely ventures past the service line, these don’t particularly matter). He’s great on either wing. Nadal wears down opponents by concentrating relentlessly on their weaknesses (Federer’s relatively wimpy one-handed backhand, Murray’s forehand and crappy second serve, Del Potro’s lumbering immobility etc). When he faces Djokovic, there’s nothing for Nadal to target, no ingrained fragility to exploit. He  just has to serve, run, return and hit better than his opponent: and he can’t manage it.

2. Djokovic hits the ball flatter and with more accuracy than I’ve ever seen. Most players who hit flat (i.e. without Nadal or Federer’s exaggerated top-spin loops high over the net) tend to give away a lot of cheap points by finding the net a lot. Somehow, Djokovic doesn’t, so the ball not only keeps coming back time and time again, but comes back fast and low. And when it lands, the number of times it hits or clips the lines is bizarre. That means Nadal can’t get himself properly set to hit the ball the way he's used to, and is being hurried into shots – something he can’t cope with: he’s a groove player rather than an instinctive genius able to extemporise at will.

3. Nadal can’t tell where Djokovic is going to hit the ball. The secret of Federer’s serve, apparently, is that he always tosses the ball up in the same way to the same point and always shapes his body the same way, only adjusting the racket at the last instant, so opponents can’t tell where the ball is going. Djokovic, they say, does the same on all his open-play shots: his body gives no clue as to where the ball is going – which is how he manages to wrong-foot Nadal so often.

4. Nadal used to be the fastest man on a tennis court, but Djokovic is now faster, which means that the Serb can return shots that would have been winners even against the likes of Murray and Federer. You can almost hear Nadal thinking “Oh, for f*ck’s sake!” after Djokovic somehow manages to return another certain winner to within a few inches of the baseline.

5. Nadal’s weight of shot tends to overpower Federer and Murray. Djokovic somehow harnesses all that power and adds some extra – it’s astonishing how often Nadal is left mid-court, perplexed at finding the ball either rocketing past him or hurriedly scrambling to dig it up from around his feet. The clearest demonstration of Djokovic’s mastery of power is the way that, on key points, he’s often able to extend the grunt of effort he lets out when hitting the ball into a roar of triumph as it bullets past his opponent for a winner, without a pause.

6. Nadal is, undoubtedly, the greatest competitor in the history of the sport. That’s down to a combination of factors. He’s far from being the most naturally gifted of players – but no-one has made better use of the limited talent he was born with (Lendl runs him close). The only way of doing that is a mixture of endless, punishing practice (the extravagantly gifted McEnroe didn’t bother practicing – he relied on innate ability); a tremendous will to win when it matters; oodles of guts; and the sense to accept your limitations . Well, the bad news for Rafa is that Djokovic appears to match him in all those departments – but he has more natural talent.

7. Nadal is a near-deranged patriot: just remember how, when he won the 2008 Wimbledon final in 2008, he clambered dangerously over the Centre Court infrastructure in his eagerness to share that monumental victory with his King. He has performed great feats to help his country win the Davis Cup. But Djokovic evidently draws equal strength from his love of country. In the early part of his career, the Serb was a bit of a wimp, constantly defaulting in the middle of matches he was losing, citing asthma or food poisoning or some psychosomatic injury. Significantly, he hasn’t done any of that since winning the Davis Cup for Serbia in 2010 – the event which signalled the true start of his ascent to greatness. One now has the impression that, like Nadal, whenever Djokovic steps out onto a tennis court he is representing not just himself, but a whole nation – one that was, in his youth, a pariah state. These fine young men are playing for something greater than themselves. That must help.

8. Djokovic also matches Nadal in the humility stakes. It took Roger Federer an awfully long time to realise that, in order to stop Nadal beating him, he needed to change his game: the serve has become the best in the game, his back-hand is no longer a joke shot, he comes to the net more etc. (Too late, of course – the psychological damage had already been done – but it has helped Federer stay at the top of the game despite turning 30: he just achieved the extraordinary feat of reaching 31 grand slam quarter-finals in a row). Maybe because Federer and Murray are blessed with so much natural talent, they aren’t naturally humble people: if Murray possessed true humility, he would have listened to the advice everyone’s been giving him or years that the only way to beat the Top Three is to play aggressively at all times – the surly Scot has always gone his own way, and that’s why his immense talent hasn’t yet brought him a Grand Slam. By contrast, Djokovic’s humility appears to be as natural as Nadal’s.

9. Djokovic’s girl-friend is even cuter than Nadal’s (who is an absolute corker in her own right). I’m sure this matters enormously.

The only think that really confuses me about Djokovic’s success is that he owns a toy poodle, which he professes to love. How can a man with a toy poodle be this roaringly masculine?

So what does Rafa do now? The French Open in May is crucial to his future (less so for Djokovic – Nadal will be the overwhelming favourite on clay). Unbelievably, Djokovic beat Nadal on clay several times last year, and was only prevented  from testing him in the 2011 Roland Garros final by Federer, who played brilliantly in the semi-final to beat the Serb (only to go on and lose, inevitably, to his Spanish nemesis – Federer is now, without a doubt, Nadal’s official bitch). If Djokovic beats Nadal at the French Open, the game is up, rivalry-wise: it’ll be up to Murray or Del Potro to try to knock him off his perch.

Tennis is the only sport I truly love watching. I feel genuinely grateful that, now I have the leisure and the technology to watch every important game played anywhere in the world, the sport is enjoying a Golden Age. Thanks to whoever arranged that.  

1 comment:

  1. A well written post (if not incendiary to the legions of Nadal and Feddy Bear fans worldwide). With the faster new balls introduced in the French Open last year, I think that Djokovic should be a slight favorite (55/45) to beat Nadal in the final if they make it there. Nadal surely will. Djokovic could lose to either Murray or Fed. However, if Djokovic does end up beating Nadal in the French, Nadal's career is toast from then on. I don't see how he will retain the belief that he can beat Djokovic.