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Steve Flink: Masters of Their Craft

3/4/2013 3:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

There they were, a pair of unwavering professionals performing in different parts of the world, displaying the same brand of intensity, professionalism, and brio every time they stepped on the court. One of these incomparable men ruled on the hard courts at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships in the U.A.E, claiming that title without the loss of a set in five matches. The other came through on the red clay courts at the Abierto Mexicano Telcel event in Acapulco, collecting that crown without conceding a set in five contests. The former sparkled as he cast aside some formidable rivals down the stretch, demonstrating in the process that he is entirely comfortable wearing a robe reserved only for the best player in his profession. The latter inspired his vast legion of admirers with the best tennis he has produced since returning to the game three weeks ago after seven months away.

Last week, the spotlight was clearly shared by none other than Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, champions through and through, competitors of the highest order, men who carry themselves with extraordinary style, players who are fully committed to making 2013 a year they will remember for the rest of their lives. Both the Serbian and the Spaniard took something substantial away from recording their latest triumphs. Djokovic had not played a tournament since winning his fourth Australian Open at the start of the season, encouraging his growing fan base with his Dubai exploits to believe that he might be on his way to at least coming close to replicating his remarkable feats of 2011, when he captured three majors and ten tournaments altogether.

Nadal gave himself an immense confidence boost by sweeping so commandingly through the field in Mexico. For the first time in his three tournaments since his comeback, Nadal was confronted by two highly ranked men with the propensity to test him searchingly. Perhaps they could have caught him off guard at a time when Nadal was still redeveloping his game and reacquainting himself with the art of match-play, when he was still not entirely sure how well he was playing or how cooperative his ailing knee would be. But Nadal stepped up majestically to the moment, subduing world No. 12 Nicolas Almagro in two tight sets and then obliterating world No. 4 David Ferrer in 65 magnificent minutes, at the cost of only two games.

Let’s recollect first the run of Djokovic in Dubai, an event he has now secured four times. In the final, the 25-year-old faced probably world No. 6 Tomas Berdych. The 6’5” fellow from the Czech Republic has moved into another realm in his game over the past three years. In 2010, Berdych was one set away from the French Open final before Sweden’s Robin Soderling toppled him in five hard fought sets. He then upended both Roger Federer and Djokovic to reach the final of Wimbledon, bowing at the All England Club against Nadal on a windswept afternoon. He had a solid if less eventful 2011, followed by an impressive 2012, when he went to the U.S. Open semifinals with another quarterfinal triumph over Federer.

Berdych took the court with Djokovic in Dubai fresh from an exhilarating semifinal recovery against Federer, after saving three match points in a 3-6, 7-6 (8), 6-4 victory over the Swiss. Although Djokovic owned a 12-1 career head-to-head lead over Berdych in their career series, there was no evidence of discouragement from the underdog in the early stages of the final. Berdych was timing the ball impeccably off both sides, reminding us all that the purity of his ground game is second to none in the sport. At the outset, he was devastatingly potent and accurate from the backcourt and the depth and pace of his shots was making Djokovic look unusually comfortable.

At 2-2 in the opening set, Berdych seized the initiative. After Djokovic had released an ace for 30-30, Berdych crushed one of his patented deep returns to draw an error from the Serbian, who was understandably rocked back on his heels. Having struggled inordinately to find even a minor weakness in the Berdych groundstroke arsenal, Djokovic elected to come forward at 30-40. But his backhand volley lacked the punch and penetration it needed. Berdych easily passed the Serbian with a crosscourt forehand, and the big man had the break for 3-2. Fueled by that development, Berdych moved to 40-30 in the sixth game, and held for 4-2, sending a barrage of overpowering shots from side to side, eventually finding the opening for an inside-out forehand winner. Djokovic was not playing badly, but Berdych was simply unstoppable.

But Djokovic remained utterly composed. He held at love with four consecutive first serves in the seventh game. Now Berdych was serving with new balls, which proved to be a liability for him. He commenced the eighth game with a double fault that flew long. Nevertheless, Berdych advanced to 40-30, a point away from a 5-3 lead. Djokovic stymied him there by adding extra topspin to his forehand crosscourt to coax Berdych into a mistake. Berdych garnered a second game point, but Djokovic prevailed again by going forehand to forehand.

Unquestionably, this was the pivotal game of the match. Djokovic earned a break point, but missed narrowly off the forehand. Berdych then went to game point for the third time. His first serve to the backhand was a good one, so Berdych made a delayed approach to the net to cut off the return. But he netted a forehand volley. At break point down again, Berdych laced a scintillating backhand down the line, moved up to the forecourt, only to bungle an easy forehand volley flagrantly into the net. That was his most expensive error or the match. Djokovic was back to 4-4. Yet the favorite drifted to 15-40 in the ninth game. He saved one break point with a service winner, and cast aside a second when Berdych missed an inside-out forehand going for the gusto. Berdych had a third break point opportunity, but Djokovic wiped that one away adeptly, using a strategically placed first serve to set up a trademark crosscourt backhand that was too much for Berdych to handle.

Djokovic obstinately held on for 5-4 before Berdych responded with a love game on his serve. But the complexion of the match had been altered decidedly. Djokovic opened the eleventh game with an ace, and held at love with poise and precision for 6-5. Berdych had lost nearly all of his conviction. Serving to stay in the set, hoping to reach a tie-break and perhaps regain his equilibrium, Berdych played abysmally. He fell behind 0-30 with a wild forehand unforced error and a hesitant two-hander long. Djokovic forced him into another backhand error to reach 15-40, and then Berdych double faulted long. Set to Djokovic, 7-5. The match was essentially over.

Djokovic held at 30 for 1-0 in the second set with consecutive aces, but Berdych replicated that feat with consecutive aces of his own for 1-1. Berdych managed to remain alive until 3-3, and then he reached 0-30 on Djokovic’s serve in the seventh game. The Serbian tellingly lifted his game considerably, collecting four points in a row for 4-3. Berdych had three game points in the eighth game but Djokovic was unrelenting. After two deuces, he got to break point, and lofted a high defensive lob crosscourt. Berdych took his overhead on the bounce, but hit it tentatively crosscourt, and sent it wide.

To his credit, Berdych did not concede defeat without a conscientious fight. With Djokovic serving for the match at 5-3, 30-30, the Serbian double faulted for only the second time in the match, but then promptly aced Berdych down the T for deuce. Djokovic moved to match point, missed a forehand passing shot down the line, but swiftly made it to match point again, concluding the contest with an inside-out forehand that was unanswerable. Djokovic was victorious 7-5, 6-3, raising his 2013 match record to a perfect 13-0. He heads into Indian Wells brimming with optimism and conviction.

That will not be the case for the defending champion Federer, who suffered a bruising defeat at the hands of Berdych in Dubai. Berdych toppled the Swiss for the fifth time in their last eight meetings. Prior to that, Federer had won eight of his first nine appointments with Berdych. This collision in Dubai was perhaps their most suspenseful head-to-head duel ever. Federer captured the opening set with one crucial break, but Berdych quickly established a 5-2 second set lead. But Berdych tightened up considerably when he served for the set in the ninth game. Federer rallied to 5-5. He reached 15-40 on Berdych’s serve in the eleventh game, and the Swiss was in control of a crucial rally. Twice, he made Berdych play arduous running forehands, pulling the big man off the court. But Berdych sent one of those forehands back with slice and the other with topspin, keeping both reasonably deep. A hesitant Federer did not go on the attack, and lost the point with a netted forehand.

Berdych saved three break points en route to 6-5, and had a set point in the following game. Federer miss-hit a forehand that landed long, but Berdych did not challenge the call and ended up losing the point. They went to a tie-break that had no rhyme or reason. Federer led 2-0, Berdych won the next four points, but then Federer struck back to take four points in a row. The Swiss was serving at 6-4, with two match points at his disposal. But he did not press his advantage. After missing a first serve, he allowed Berdych to take control with a forehand down the line, and Federer sliced a cautious backhand long. Still trailing match point as he served at 5-6, Berdych sent out a big serve to the forehand that clipped the service line, provoking an errant return from Federer.

Federer had one more match point with Berdych serving at 7-8 in the tie-break, but chipped a backhand return long off a booming first serve. Berdych took the tie-break 10-8 for one set all, held from 0-30 at 0-1 in the third, and never really looked back. Berdych prevailed 3-6, 7-6 (6), 6-4. It was the second time he had rescued himself from match point down against Federer. Some observers seemed to look at this loss as an anomaly, but that is simply not so. Consider the following: his career five set record is 21-17, surprisingly mediocre for the man so many of us believe is the best ever to play the game.

Moreover, he has lost a cluster of matches across the years after having match points. The examples that spring immediately to mind of Federer bowing after holding at least one match point include his 2005 Australian Open semifinal with Marat Safin, his 2006 Italian Open title round battle with Rafael Nadal, his 2010 and 2011 U.S. Open semifinals against Djokovic, his 2010 Miami semifinal with Berdych and two more matches from that same season versus Marcos Baghdatis at Indian Wells and Gael Monfils indoors in Paris. Moreover, he was beaten in some other critical encounters when he was two points away from winning—against Nadal at Wimbledon in 2008 and Del Potro at the 2009 U.S. Open, both in the finals.

To be sure, Federer has won some agonizingly close contests over the years at propitious moments, most notably in 2009 when he rallied to beat Andy Roddick 16-14 in the fifth set, and a few weeks earlier when he survived harrowing five set duels with Tommy Haas and Del Potro at the French Open. But the fact remains that Federer has fallen frequently over the years after being within striking distance of victory. It will be fascinating to watch Federer at Indian Wells because this enormously accomplished man who captured six tournaments in 2012 has not won a singles title since Cincinnati last August, suffering defeats at seven consecutive events since then.

Let’s return to the brightness of Nadal in Acapulco, which could well turn out to be a significant turning point in his 2013 campaign of resurrection. In his semifinal with Almagro, Nadal impressively kept his nerve in both sets. Almagro’s one-handed topspin backhand is an often dazzling shot. He can unleash winners with regularity off that side, invent spectacular angles, and overwhelm his opponents with his velocity. He can also blast winners off the forehand with sporadic brilliance, although he is highly suspect off that side. Nadal wisely went to the forehand whenever possible, which eventually won him the match. But it was far from easy. At 4-5 in the first set, he was set point down on his serve but his inside-out forehand was well measured, and he unsurprisingly provoked an error from an apprehensive Almagro. Nadal revived to win three games in a row for the set.

In the second set, Nadal was down 2-3, 0-40 but collected five points in a row. He did not miss a first serve in that span, and upped his level of aggression considerably. The Spaniard held on for 3-3 and broke Almagro at 4-4, winning 7-5, 6-4. Toward the end, his court coverage was outstanding, and he moved side to side with astonishing alacrity. That display of outstanding defense surely raised his morale and his confidence for the final. But no one, not even Nadal, could have envisioned such a one-sided skirmish. To be sure, Nadal held a commanding 16-4 career lead over Ferrer in their career series, and he had never lost a final to his compatriot. In their last appointment at the 2012 French Open, Nadal had crushed Ferrer 6-2, 6-2, 6-1 in the semifinals.

But the fact remained that this inimitable left-hander had not met an upper crust, top five in the world opponent since his return to tennis last month. Plainly, the Almagro match was a useful stepping stone for Nadal, giving him a good barometer of where he was and what he needed to do as he approached the Ferrer assignment. From the outset, it was apparent that Nadal was fully primed for this important battle. In the opening game, Ferrer saved a break point at 30-40 but Nadal clipped the sideline at deuce with a forehand hit deliberately short. Ferrer disputed the call with the umpire to no avail. Nadal then got the break on a forehand unprovoked mistake from his countryman. Nadal opened the second game with a double fault, fell behind 15-30 but collected three points in a row to hold for 2-0.

The determined left-hander had just the cushion he wanted. In the third game, Ferrer saved a break point at 30-40, but Nadal defended skillfully to win the next point and then travelled to 3-0 as Ferrer could not handle a high forehand off a looping shot from his tactically agile opponent. The pattern continued as Nadal had to work hard for each game. And yet, when it really counted, it was Ferrer who was always found wanting. Serving in the fourth game, Nadal was at 30-40 but Ferrer made a pair of unforced errors off the backhand before Nadal moved to 4-0 with a well placed first serve that was unmanageable for Ferrer.

Having had his share of chances to make an impression with nothing to show for it, Ferrer was understandably rattled. Nadal broke at 15 for 5-0 with an acutely angled crosscourt backhand return opening up an avenue for a forehand winner taken on the rise. Nadal dropped only one point on serve in the following game, producing two winners off the forehand. For only the third time in his 21 match series with Ferrer, Nadal had captured a 6-0 set. Nadal was soaring now. Combining offense and defense irresistibly, he broke at 15 for 1-0 in the second set, and then held at 15 for 2-0 with brilliantly controlled aggression. In the previous four games, Nadal had taken 16 of 20 points with sweeping authority. In the third game of the second set, he reached break point, but Ferrer went for broke and connected for a timely forehand winner. At last, he got on the scoreboard, holding for 1-2.

Ferrer had a brief ray of hope in the fourth game when he reached break point, but Nadal’s sliced serve wide was unanswerable. Nadal went on to hold for 3-1. At 30-30 in the fifth game, Nadal flattened out a backhand superbly to make a down the line winner. At break point, he scampered all over the court to stay in the point, and then benefited from a miss-hit forehand that drew an error from a beleaguered Ferrer. On went Nadal to 4-1. Both men knew for certain now that Nadal was not going to lose. Nadal held easily at 15 for 5-1 before Ferrer garnered one more game. Serving for the match at 5-2, Nadal held at love, closing it out stylishly with a backhand down the line winner. Nadal had beaten Ferrer completely into submission, winning 6-0, 6-2.

To be sure, Ferrer contributed heavily to his own demise with too many inexplicable unforced errors and a largely muddled mind, but the fact remains that Nadal was remarkably close to the Nadal of old. He was measuring the forehand beautifully, taking charge of rallies and giving little away. But, most impressively, he was magnificent off the backhand, flattening it out more than usual, hammering it crosscourt with deep authority, never allowing Ferrer to hurt him off that side. Moreover, Nadal’s mobility in both the Almagro and Ferrer matches was terrific. The tennis he played down the stretch in Acapulco was significantly better than anything he produced in either Vina del Mar or the Brasil Open.

Djokovic and Nadal are right where they want to be heading into Indian Wells. The Serbian is as self-assured as ever, and he seems certain to win at least one more Grand Slam title this year. He will almost surely finish the season at No. 1 in the world for the third consecutive year. Nadal, meanwhile, is clearly on the upswing, and the feeling grows that he is going to give himself every possible chance to capture his eighth French Open crown in June. Make no mistake about it: Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal are two honorable masters of their trade, and both men are destined to achieve prodigiously across the rest of 2013.
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.