27 September 2011

Djokovic v. Nadal: This Time It's Personal

September 12th 2011. A day later than scheduled, a day after the most portentous date in the American calendar. A day after the day that sparked two wars - one barely masquerading as over, the other the longest in US history, whose casualty toll reaches over 250,000, showing no signs of abating, as renewed attacks from the Taliban have seen the intelligence agencies of the US and Britain. The eve of that portentous date, a truck bomb in central Afghanistan killed 5 Afghans and injured 77 US soldiers. A day which signifies unending, fractious offensives; offensives which come with deeply embedded psychologies: military cruelty presented as the fight between ideologies.

24 hours after that portentous date - and itself a day later than planned - a different kind of battle, between two foreign powers.

The US Open Tennis Men's Final.

World no.1 Novak Djokovic, bulldozing his way back from 2 sets to 0 down against Roger Federer in the semi finals (for the second year running), against defending champion Rafael Nadal - defeated Wimbledon finalist, 5 times losing finalist to Djokovic in 2011. Their rivalry this year has felt more like a war, in which the reigning king has been eroded and exploded by the Serbian's unbelievable resilience and strength in depth.

This was a battle. Brutal. Attritious. Contentious. And not just competitive - but combative. A battle whcih Djokovic inevitably won - but nonetheless a match which, over 4 sets, took nearly 4 and a half hours.

It hurt to watch. The two men were beating each other to a pulp, running so hard and striking the ball with such power that each shot really was that: a shot. Discharged with inconceivable force; two men armed. Literally. Weapons growing out of their shoulders, at times firing canons; at others, tricky, terrifying snipers, seeking the lines and corners.

This mammoth, hugely entertaining battle marks a new rivalry: Djokovic and Nadal. But unlike the previous rivalry which dominated men's tennis - that between Nadal and Federer, who have competed in 8 Grand Slam Finals (Nadal victorious in 6), and produced the greatest match of all time in the Wimbledon Final 2008 - this one will not be as dazzling in the ability of both players to bring the best out of each other.

Nadal and Federer's games fit each other like gloves - they challenged and responded to each other in ways previously impossible. But Djokovic and Nadal will not reign together. They'll wax and wane in turn: because their rivalry, with two styles so similar, is one of outdoing. Djokovic's game is effectively modelled on Nadal's (whose game was modelled on beating Federer's): phenomenal fitness, incredible returns, defence-into-attack, the grinding of opponents and the surprise unleashing of rocketing forehands. The elements they do not share between them - most clearly exposed on clay to Nadal's advantage, and on the hardcourts of Australia and the US for Djokovic - is unbelievable spin (Nadal's power) and a probing, split-second backhand (Djokovic's power - and Nadal's weakness).

So why, with games so similar, has Nadal always had Djokovic's number before? It's not just because Djokovic has only really reached competing levels of fitness and consistency this year. Nadal's greatest weapon, when all other weapons fail, is a huge heart and the steeliest of minds. The power to convince himself against the inevitability of an apparent loss: the ability to just keep the ball in play, to plant a seed of doubt in the opponent's mind, to hide out, to battle and play dirty until the dominator trips himself up. As well as his own waspish forehands and offensives, he plays so well into the self-confidence of others: he finds a way to undermine their faith in their strongest assets.

Yet in the heart of the second set of the Final, after Nadal had gone 2-0 up (as in the first), only to be hauled back to 2-2, at the end of a 17 minute game of brutal attack and impossible playmaking - Djokovic broke him. And that steely reserve cracked. Beneath it we saw what that outer armour protects: a little boy, eager to please, determined to succeed, bullied and buoyed by his uncle Toni. Skinny, a little desperate and full of willing - but out of ideas.

On September 12th, as the CIA building in Kabul slept nervously, suspicious but unaware of the attack awaiting it, Rafael Nadal faced up to a new enemy. An enemy that may well be himself.

Novak Djokovic beat Nadal at his own game. He played the same style of tennis, and now, emphatically underlined by Djokovic's unstoppable victories all year, he was playing it better. Constantly. And Rafa - with nowhere to hide under the lights and the cameras, no teammates, just one individual so eager to win, to please, that he re-programmed his body to play left-handed - faced the truth. That his refusal to lose had become a kind of denial....a negative. He went through his usual armoury: defence into attack, denying the loss, clawing back; but his classic refuse-to-lose game lacked one element. Belief. Even in the exhilarating fight of the third set. which saw Nadal come back from 4-1 down to take the set on a tie break, won by flashes of electric forehands, the moments of transcendence felt like a suspension of disbelief on Nadal's part. Half an hour where he forgot that he doesn't believe he can beat Djokovic right now.

The media loves to spin itself into a frenzy about form and fitness - endlessly fretting over the 'torture' Nadal inflicts on himself like an over-protective mother cooing over a grazed knee. The only torture for Nadal is mental. He was on fine form - and velocity - in the US Open, the second week especially. His first 2 sets against Andy Murray in the semi-final (won 6-4 6-2 3-6 6-2) were an example of the terrifying fluency of a top player at total ease. Nadal, who knows Murray's game so well, and knows how to beat it, was gorgeous: improvising with his own game, experimenting with length and depth, taking to the net. Just like with Federer's game, Nadal has cracked the formula with Murray: he knows the rhythm and rigour he needs to apply. The men on the other side of the net are known quantities. And with this knowledge, this comfort, he can relax and play great tennis.

But - what of this new enemy? This brusque, dark-haired, slim pine tree of a man, who makes Nadal look nervous and strained, exposing a weakness in Nadal's game he never thought he'd need to improve: that strong, strong resolve. How has Djokovic got inside his head?

The answer is in the Serb's own constitution. After several years showing promise, he has come to terms with his own head and heart. Sure, djokovic's superb fitness, the change to a gluten-free diet and good rest all contribute. But as he says, he hasn't changed his game so much. The key to his year of superhero tennis - only 2 losses in 64 games - is an alignment of a powerful mind to that powerful body. Exuding positivity and - in his own words - 'aggression', Djokovic has found a place for his personality within his game.

In previous years watching Djokovic play, you could see his undoubted talent - his victory in the Australian Open 2008 an obvious signal - but it always came in gasps, usually separated by periods of petulance, wilting fitness or variable form. Djokovic's relationship with his mind and personality was a bit like Murray's: the mind is a danger. It should be kept separate from the game; leave it off the court so it doesn't distract you.

As we constantly see with Murray, this causes problems. Try to lock up your mind and soul in the locker room and it will find a way of creeping out in your shoelaces, appearing on the inside of your towel as you wipe the sweat and change ends, in the yellow fluff of the new balls you're now nervous to serve with.

Djokovic has realised this year that personality - heart as well as mind - has a crucial place in a champion's game. He's not going to win just by playing good tennis. He has to have the attitude, the feeling to match. In his own words:

"...I had difficulties approaching semi-finals and finals. I would wait for players to make mistakes. I didn't have the positive attitude. That has changed now - the 2010 US Open [four-set defeat by Nadal] was the turning point.

"I guess it just clicked in my head. It's just that I'm hitting the shots that I maybe wasn't hitting in the last two, three years now. I'm going for it."

Djokovic's heart is in his tennis now - his character and his energy no longer struggling to stay subdued in the locker room.

Just look at that astounding exhibitionism after his match-point-saving forehand in the 5th set against Federer in the semis. or his unselfconsciously ridiculous robot dance at the end of the first week. His playmaking in set 2 of the final. Or his cold, clinical bulldozing of the 4th - a no-nonsense close out. Djokovic - a great mimic, a joker, a cheeky chancer, a bit arrogant but also, crucially, an enigma, a coolly fierce solider - has let his personality play tennis.

Now his mimicry - once reserved just for joking around or terrible adverts - is being used on court, to embody the styles of other players and beat them at their own games. This audacious mix of calm cockiness, one-upmanship and flair is - this year - an almost impenetrable fort. Opponents look across the net and see themselves...parodied.

And that was what made the US Open Final such a terrifying, pummelling bout of a game. It was personal. Like part of these players' identities was at stake. Like they were fighting for who they were: fighting for the right to be called champion, two players so similarly matched that the battleground was really a mental one. Two men playing a style of tennis which, on paper, is very similar. Two men divided and engaged by the net: drawing these similarities into battle.

The divide between them was not equal, though. The net a window to one, disguised as a mirror to the other. Nadal in the interrogation room - staring into the glass to only see himself, whilst Djokovic stoof on the other side, seeing his every move.

The component which turned the scrutiny on Nadal, and hid Djokovic's direction and probes from the Spaniard? That Djokovic has made that defence-into-attack style a purely attacking on. He's turned a 'negative' style of tennis into the most aggressive, open, incisive play around.

So now that Djokovic has brought his head game to rival the strongest head and heart of all - what is going to decide the future of this rivalry?

It will be the physical state of each player which redresses the current divide. To fix the mind, Nadal must go back to the body. Focus, train, and stop worrying about Djokovic. Focus on improving the backhand, serving under pressure, finding depth of groundstrokes. Only through playing the game, getting absorbed in it, can he find himself. Regain confidence, find enjoyment - and that form which found him winning the French, Wimbledon and US Opens in 2010. Time will pass. Djokovic will get a little tired, or the magic making this incredible year will run out; maybe that old mentality will peek in even for a second, if he isn't careful; maybe he'll drop off his workrate (though that seems unlikely...). Time will tell whose body will fatigue and confidence will falter.

Just look at that country plunged into war by that portentous day before September 12th. What a lot of self-belief and aggression it showed in the face of an enemy. And what a lot of damage and error can be caused when that self-belief goes awry. Or when it's not founded on anything. It becomes denial. The enemy adapts, survives, learns your game, finds its rhythm. And retains its own element of surprise. And the war grinds on: in it for the long haul, charting the shifts in power like spikes on a heart monitor.

During the match, Rafa must have felt like he was fighting a cause he didn't believe in. But in the press conference afterwards, Nadal's attitude was superb. And in a way - having, as he says, a new 'goal', a new target, is brilliant for him. He needs something to aim for: someone to attack. Djokovic is still soaring, but behind him - despite his humility and sense in interviews - Rafa is aggravated. Aggresive. In sport, that can cause an explosive renewal of offense, or a terrible implosion. A desire to finish this once and for all. Because in tennis at least, wars can be won and lost. They can be measured and tabulated and put in snippets on Wikipedia and ATP player bios. We're playing at being in battles. And if someone gets hurt, they don't get buried in a mass grave. They have a massage. Or cramp in a press conference.

1 comment:

  1. I can't wait to go the Australian Open 2012 ! I went last year and had one of the best times with my friends. Being able to watch Djokovic and Clijsters take the wins was amazing and having the opportunity to see parts of Australia at the same time was a great experience.