Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic - 2011 US Open - Day 15

And so they meet again, the two best players in the world, on yet another grand stage.  After a fortnight of largely predictable tennis in the men’s draw arrives a match that nearly everyone had expected, at least outside Switzerland and Great Britain.  Those who followed the 2011 season in detail might consider this final battle just as foreseeable as everything that has preceded it this fortnight.  Nevertheless, every season offers an opportunity to turn a page on the past and create a new narrative.

Doubtless hoping desperately to dull the memories of six painful defeats by Djokovic, Nadal should have gained some optimism from his victories over Berdych and Federer.  Although he lost the first set to each of those opponents, the world #2 played progressively more inspired tennis through the rest of those matches, scrambling implausibly on defense to produce vintage retrievals while stepping inside the court on backhands as well as forehands.  In contrast, Djokovic sagged through significant stretches of arduous victories over Ferrer and Murray after unexpectedly conceding a set to Hewitt.  Struggling with his breathing during his last two matches, the world #1 needed every ounce of energy to escape a Scot far more determined than in last year’s final.  In a thrillingly physical match that stretched just ten minutes short of five hours, Murray forced the Serb to grind through rally after rally that probed the contours of the court, often leaving one or both men gasping for air.  After such exertions of mind and body, surely Djokovic will enter the final too drained to outlast Rafa in a best-of-five format?

And yet…

When Murray extended Djokovic to a final-set tiebreak in Rome, most observers made much the same comment as they looked forward to his championship tilt against Nadal.  Less than 24 hours later, the Serb had registered his most resounding victory of the season against his most notable victim, repeatedly triumphing in the endlessly prolonged rallies that the Spaniard has used to chip away at the minds and bodies of his opponents.  In the US Open final, moreover, the world #1 trumped the man ranked immediately below him despite having survived a psychologically exhausting five-setter against Federer in the previous round, and despite nursing a shoulder injury throughout the fortnight.  When Djokovic has looked his most beleaguered in New York and here, he has become oddly more dangerous by adding additional urgency to his shots and somehow finding the lines even more precisely.  At the US Open, he rampaged through his most dominant set of the day after limping through a tiebreak and requesting the trainer.  Having defeated Federer in the 2009 final after winning a similarly nerve-jangling semifinal with Verdasco, Nadal knows well not to underestimate the recovery potential of the only player in the ATP who can equal his own fitness.

All the same, the 2009 champion took measures to enhance his serve over the offseason in order to avoid the dismal effectiveness of that shot against Djokovic at the US Open. Broken a career-high eleven times in that match, Rafa repeatedly lost his serve after breaking his opponent and thus rarely could consolidate a momentum shift.  In two of the match’s longest games, his inability to collect free points from his delivery represented key turning points.  Addressing this problem with determination and some imagination, Nadal added three grams of weight to the top of his racket in the expectation that the pace of his serve would increase.  Through his first several matches, he indeed has appeared to crack higher velocities with that shot more often.  Cleverly varying its placement against Federer, the Spaniard did earn a greater percentage of free points than usual.  Surely such a key improvement to his arsenal will play a critical role in the Melbourne title match?

And yet…

Long a better returner than Federer or Berdych, Djokovic possesses better reflexes than the former and greater agility than the latter.  Despite the amplified pace on his serve, Nadal has not always held serve in key games with as much ease as one might expect.  Broken when he served for the second set against Berdych, he later let a mini-break slip away in the ensuing tiebreak.  Extended through three deuces in the final game of his semifinal, Rafa struggled mightily to finish the match as his first serve misfired.  Meanwhile, Djokovic’s clear mental edge in his rivalry with the Spaniard may undermine Nadal’s confidence and indirectly dull a shot that relies upon confidence as much as any technical prowess.

Sooner or later, of course, the 2009 champion will halt his streak of futility against the title holder in 2008 and 2011.  Following an offseason during which he likely reviewed their matches in detail, Nadal may have developed new strategies to combat a rival who frustrated him so relentlessly.  Beyond the additional pace on his serve, for example, he may have realized that he must hit through his backhand more forcefully in cross-court rallies against the Djokovic forehand.  Able to survive exchanges from his own two-hander to the Nadal forehand, the Serb has enjoyed his most notable success by targeting the Spaniard’s backhand until he receives a more tentative reply that he can redirect down the line to his opponent’s forehand corner.  If that tactic proves less effective on Sunday, Djokovic may struggle to find new patterns that unsettle his opponent without earning time of his own to formulate a response.

And yet…

In a similar position to Djokovic now, Nadal gradually overtook Federer largely by means of hooking his lefty forehand into the Swiss master’s one-handed backhand, a shot exquisitely graceful but relatively lacking in resilience.  While Rafa simply adhered to this reliable strategy, his rival experimented with one potential parry after another but never quite found the response that would undo this straightforward balance of power.  To some extent, then, the narrative of the Federer-Nadal rivalry ultimately developed into the older man’s quest to overcome an inherent limitation in a game that had seemed bulletproof until the arrival of his nemesis.  Perhaps one should not assume that the Spaniard will find answers to similar inherent shortcomings more easily than the man whom he supplanted at the summit of the sport.  At this stage of his career, Nadal likely will not change his style any more dramatically than Federer has as he ages.

***

In both of their two previous major finals, Djokovic seized a commanding early lead before Rafa snatched away the third set.  Just when Nadal threatened to launch a courageous comeback, however, the Serb stamped out resistance with an imposing fourth set.  During the early stages of this final, therefore, the second seed should attempt to assert himself against the world #1 more forcefully than he did against Berdych and Federer.  Edgy to start those matches, Nadal positioned himself too far behind the baseline and only gradually crept closer as his confidence rose.  If he lets Djokovic seize the early initiative, however, the psychological obstacle posed by the events of 2011 will tower ever higher in his mind.  On the other hand, a firm statement of purpose in the first set would signal to a possibly weary Serb that he must prepare for a challenge even more formidable than their US Open encounter.  Djokovic and Nadal never have played a fifth set against each other, and this match should not break from that trend.  Expect one of these two battle-hardened combatants to claim the early momentum and weather a series of dangerous surges by the opponent before mastering Melbourne in four compelling but not quite classic sets.

 

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