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Steve Flink: New Week, Same Final

5/16/2011 6:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

After yet another stupendous week, Novak Djokovic must be quietly confident that he is going to win the French Open. Maybe quietly confident is putting it too mildly. He has now swept no fewer than 37 consecutive matches across an impeccable 2011 campaign. He has captured seven tournaments in that span. He has been challenged by all of his premier rivals in the upper regions of the men’s game this year, and this is how he stands against key rivals ranked in the top ten: 4-0 vs. Rafael Nadal, 3-0 vs. Roger Federer, 2-0 vs. Andy Murray, 1-0 vs. Robin Soderling, 1-0 vs. David Ferrer, and 2-0 vs. Thomas Berdych. He has won three clay court tournaments in a row en route to Roland Garros, toppling the great Nadal in consecutive clay court finals the last two weeks. Quite simply, Djokovic is in a class by himself as the best player in the world, and the more he wins the more self assured and commanding he seems to become.

And yet, I still believe that Nadal will be the last man standing in Paris; I see him winning a sixth crown on the red clay of Roland Garros. Nadal has lost only one match at the world’s premier clay court event, falling astoundingly in four sets against Soderling in the round of 16 two years ago. In my view, that was essentially a fluke. To be sure, the Spaniard is confronted this time around by his most daunting challenge yet. Never before has he headed into the French Open having suffered two losses on the clay court circuit. Moreover, both losses to Djokovic were in straight sets. That may have damaged his psyche to some degree; there is no more prideful individual in the game of tennis than Nadal. The fact remains that Nadal is endlessly obstinate, singularly ferocious, ever willing to look inward and figure out what it will take to get himself back to precisely where he needs to be.

We must remember this: while Djokovic has established himself irrefutably as the dominant force in the men’s game, Nadal stands well above the rest of the players as the second best in the world. In his last six tournaments, the Spaniard has been victorious twice, and has made it to every final in that stretch. Only Djokovic has beaten him. The feeling grows that these two outstanding characters will meet again in the final of Roland Garros, and Djokovic will deservedly approach that contest as the favorite in the minds of many experts and a wide range of players.

Nevertheless, I am picking Nadal because he will benefit considerably from the best of five set format. As long as can split the first two sets with Djokovic—and that will be no mean feat—he can then turn the final into a longer war of attrition. Under those circumstances, Nadal could wear Djokovic down, pound him into submission, and exploit his superior physicality to get the arduous job done. Unless Djokovic is put into a fatigued and harried state, there are no weaknesses in his game any longer, and his ground game is the soundest and best in the business.

Nadal’s chances in the final of Roland Garros could depend somewhat on the weather. He would undoubtedly be boosted by a scorching summer afternoon, with the temperature soaring, and the sun shining brightly. Those are his kind of conditions, and he has a history of destroying his foremost adversaries in extreme heat. It is then that his topspin forehand bounds higher, his mood is enhanced, and his self belief is unshakable. Conversely, Djokovic has a history of problems when it is terribly hot; on perhaps the most oppressive afternoon of the 2010 U.S. Open, he nearly lost to countryman Viktor Troicki in the second round before escaping from two sets to one and a break down to survive a brutal five set contest.

That was a crucial win. Djokovic made it to the final of that event, which set the stage in many ways for his magnificent 2011 season. On many days like that one against Troicki, Djokovic has looked uncomfortable over the course of his career. No one is more capable of creating that kind of discomfort in Djokovic than Nadal under blue skies and a powerful sun.

And yet, for the second Sunday in a row on the clay, Djokovic was decidedly better than his renowned opponent from Spain as they clashed in Rome. When Djokovic stopped Nadal 7-5, 6-4 the week before in Madrid, longtime observers could point to Nadal’s annual uneasiness in the high altitude there. In that match, Djokovic was spectacular across the board while Nadal was a shade below his best and too cautious from the back of the court. But Rome is another story altogether. In that city, Nadal had won the second biggest clay court title five times, and his only loss was to Juan Carlos Ferrero in 2008 when he was suffering from blisters. Nadal loves the atmosphere in Rome, and is much happier on those courts because the ball doesn’t fly on him.

Nadal began the week inauspiciously against 29-year-old Italian qualifier Paolo Lorenzi, an unremarkable player who had upset Thomaz Bellucci in the opening round. Battling a virus, sluggish, slightly downcast after his loss to Djokovic in Madrid, Nadal blew a 4-2 first set lead and a 5-3 tie-break edge and lost the first set. They were locked at 4-4 in the second set with Lorenzi serving at 30-0 before Nadal turned the corner and swept to a 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-0 victory. Feverish the next day, he considered defaulting to compatriot Feliciano Lopez but chose to compete, performing reasonably well in a straight set triumph. Thereafter, he looked entirely like his old self in dismissing Marin Cilic and Richard Gasquet in straight sets.

Nadal was pressed hard by Gasquet all through the opening set of their semifinal. He fought off a break point at 1-2, saved two more break points at 3-4, and needed a lot of discipline and resolve to deal with the gifted Frenchman. Gasquet’s exquisite one-handed topspin backhand was in full flow, and his forehand was not only winning him points outright with its power, but he was not missing much at all off his normally more vulnerable side. Moreover, Gasquet was catching Nadal off guard with excellent use of the drop shot, drawing the Spaniard in and then flicking the ball by him with outstanding passing shots. But Nadal stood his ground, waited for his chance, and got it.

With Gasquet serving at 5-5, 15-40, the Frenchman served-and-volleyed, but Nadal anticipated that tactic and rolled a backhand return past the fast charging Gasquet for the clean winner. Serving for the set at 6-5, Nadal faced another break point but erased it swiftly with a flat serve down the T that Gasquet could not handle on the forehand return. Nadal then concluded a stirring 25 stroke exchange with a forehand winner down the line, and closed out the set 7-5. In the second set, he played unerringly and Gasquet could not stay with him. Match to Nadal, 7-5, 6-1.

He had the advantage of playing the opening semifinal, and must have been encouraged if he was watching the riveting skirmish that followed between Djokovic and Andy Murray under the lights. That contest started predictably as Djokovic pulled away in the opening set. Relaxed, sharp, in full command of his strategic game, the Serbian released four outright winners in the first game of the match. He then broke Murray in a long game before losing his own delivery. No matter. Djokovic captured four games in a row and 16 of 20 points to seal the set with an admirable display.

This was the first time Djokovic had confronted Murray since routing the British standout 6-4, 6-0, 6-3 in the Australian Open final. That match had seemed like a tossup in the minds of most authorities, with Murray having won their previous three head-to-head encounters. That was balanced by Djokovic having played the more persuasive brand of tennis “Down Under” in Melbourne. In Rome, Djokovic’s comprehensive dissection of Murray at the start lent credence to the notion that the Serbian would crush his rival again, particularly on a surface where he has long been more adept than his opponent.

But Murray was unswerving and determined to find his way into the match. As he served in the third game of the second set, he was at a distinct disadvantage because he was winning at that stage only 11% of his second serve points, a number he would raise to 36% by the end of the battle. But discouraged he was not. Murray’s first serve was a weapon to behold. He served an ace to hold for 3-2 in the second set and then used his fine blend of offense and defense to break for 4-2. In the seventh game, he prevailed in a 33 stroke rally with a forehand drop shot winner. He saved a break point and held on for 5-2. Although Djokovic wiped away two set points against him in the eighth game, Murray served out the set at 5-3 with a flourish, releasing an ace down the T for 30-15, unexpectedly serving-and-volleying to set up an overhead winner for 40-15, then closing out that game with a crackling flat backhand crosscourt winner.

It was one set all, and the battle was brewing. Djokovic commenced the third set as if fully intending to leave Murray in the dust. In the Serbian’s first two service games of that final set, he lost only one point, and then he broke Murray to forge a 3-1 lead. Djokovic was at 30-30 in the fifth game, poised to take control of the outcome. But Murray exploded into high gear, walloping a backhand return winner inside in followed by an inside in forehand return winner. Murray was flowing now. At 2-3, deuce, Murray made a sparkling forehand half volley winner off a Djokovic passing shot at his feet, and then he took a short return from the Serbian and unleashed an inside out forehand winner of the highest order. It was 3-3.

Murray was gathering steam, building confidence, sensing a real chance to record a big victory. He broke Djokovic at love for 4-3 as the Serbian double faulted to fall behind 0-40. But Murray soon found himself down 0-40 in the eighth game. He rallied to 30-40 but Djokovic broke back with an excellent inside out forehand approach leading the way for a forehand swing volley winner into the open court. At 4-4, Djokovic and Murray fought tenaciously through three deuces. Djokovic had two game points but Murray would not let go. He gained the break for 5-4, and served for the match in the tenth game. At 30-15, he served a double fault. On the following point, Murray’s serve down the T looked unstoppable, but Djokovic made an astounding return. He would win that point by forcing Murray into a backhand passing shot error, but Murray got back to deuce and was two points away from winning the match for the second time. Djokovic was in a serious bind, but was not playing as if that was the case. He sent an inside out forehand at an acute angle out of Murray’s reach for a clutch winner, but Murray made it to deuce again, two points away from triumph for the third time. Murray went for a difficult stretch forehand down the line, but hit it into the net. And then he double faulted again, allowing a gutsy Djokovic back to 5-5.

No one was safe on serve in this showdown. The two best returners in tennis were going at it unhesitatingly, pushing each other to the hilt, playing tennis of the very top class. At 5-5, Djokovic was behind 0-30 but he collected four points in a row for the hold. Now serving to stay in the match, Murray put on a brave stand of his own, holding from 15-30. A surprise serve-and-volley combination took Murray to 30-30 as Djokovic fell down chasing Murray’s first volley winner. At 30-30, Djokovic’s backhand pass down the line appeared to have Murray beat, but the British player pulled off an astonishing forehand crosscourt volley winner. Djokovic reached deuce but Murray held on gamely for 6-6, taking the match fittingly into a final set tie-break.

Murray never had a chance as Djokovic channeled everything he had into that sequence. The tie-break began with a dazzling 26 stroke rally, which ended when Murray netted a forehand drop volley off a dipping passing shot. Djokovic then out rallied Murray in a spectacular 17 stroke exchange, but Murray answered with a backhand winner up the line. Djokovic took the next two points on serve to advance to 4-1 as Murray missed a two-handed backhand down the line that would have been a winner, and then Djokovic measured a crosscourt forehand impeccably, pulling Murray off the court and forcing an errant forehand. Murray knew he had to try something daring against a Djokovic who was absolutely refusing to miss, so he served-and-volleyed to the Ad court. Djokovic sliced his return accurately down the line, made Murray volley weakly, and then rolled a backhand passing shot down the line for a winner.

Djokovic had a commanding 5-1 lead, but Murray aced him to close the gap to 5-2. Djokovic responded with supreme grace and gumption. He used his trademark backhand drop shot down the line to draw Murray in, then rolled an immaculate backhand crosscourt topspin lob winner. Now at quadruple match point, ahead 6-2 in the tie-break, Djokovic made another top of the line backhand drop shot down the line that Murray could not get back into play. Djokovic had come through 6-1, 3-6, 7-6 (2) and did not make a single mistake in the entire tie-break. It was a victory well earned. Murray had every reason to be angry with himself for not serving out the match at 5-4 in the final set, and he clearly wounded himself in that game with the two double faults. To be sure, Murray needs to finish off tight matches like this one against premier rivals; his final set tie-break loss to Nadal in the semifinals last November in London at the ATP World Tour Finals was similar in many ways.

But the fact remains that Murray was agonizingly close to achieving a big win over Djokovic, and by reaching his second Masters 1000 clay court final this season (Monte Carlo was the other) Murray could have a good run at Roland Garros and he will surely be back in the thick of things from Wimbledon on. He did himself proud in defeat and knows that he is very much on the upswing. When he is on, Murray remains fully capable of defeating any of the three men—Nadal, Djokovic and Federer—ranked above him. Despite his loss, Murray is plainly moving in the right direction.

In any case, Djokovic was kept on court for over three hours by Murray, while Nadal had not only played earlier in the day but had also competed for only 90 minutes. Nadal seemed to have found just the right time to play Djokovic, who figured to be a debilitated figure after two long weeks on the clay and an exhausting battle with Murray the evening before. I thought this would surely be Nadal’s moment to beat Djokovic for the first time in 2011, his chance to cut down Djokovic in their last event before Roland Garros, but I could not have been more wrong.

Both players seemed primed at the outset. In his first four service games, Djokovic conceded only six points. On his way to 3-4, Nadal dropped only three points in his first three service games. Nadal was making a concerted effort to step up the pace of his shots, to impose himself more off the forehand than he had done in Madrid, to not allow Djokovic to utterly control the flow of the match. The Spaniard was taking his forehand up the line more frequently, running around his backhand whenever possible to play his blockbuster inside out forehand, flattening out his backhand when he was going crosscourt.

He was also looking to disrupt Djokovic’s rhythm with high trajectory topspin backhands down the line, although that play did not work well. The bottom line is that Djokovic was executing brilliantly off both sides. No matter what Nadal threw at him, Djokovic had the solutions; his defense off the forehand was phenomenal, and his power and accuracy with his two-hander was often breathtaking. Djokovic also had Nadal entirely at bay, picking apart the Spaniard with his inside-out forehand, driving the ball magnificently off that side. On top of all that, Djokovic served strategically, pulling Nadal wide in the deuce court with precision, opening up the court to do whatever he wanted off the forehand.

Let’s get back to the match. Nadal was serving at 3-4, 15-30 when Djokovic stymied him with a defensive gem. Nadal cracked an inside-out forehand that should have given him the point, but Djokovic replied with a deep sliced forehand that provoked a forehand long from Nadal. Djokovic broke at 15 when Nadal miss hit a backhand well out of court. Djokovic was where he wanted to be, up 5-3, serving for the set. But Nadal turned up the volume of his determination, and willed his way back into the set. At 15-15, he won a 25 shot rally from Djokovic when the Serbian netted a backhand down the line. Then Djokovic missed an inside-out forehand wide off a high ball to give Nadal a 15-40 lead. Djokovic saved one break point but, at 30-40, Nadal out maneuvered him in a 21 stroke exchange as the Serbian drove a forehand down the line into the net.

Nadal was back on serve at 4-5, leading 30-15 on his delivery. But he uncharacteristically went for a non-percentage play, taking a backhand crosscourt from Djokovic and trying to drive his forehand down the line for a winner. He missed that shot badly. At 30-30, Djokovic shifted remarkably from defense to offense, and then directed a forehand crosscourt that coaxed Nadal into an error with his two-hander. Suddenly, Nadal stood at 4-5, 30-40, with no margin for error. In a ten stroke rally, Djokovic waited for the right opening, and connected beautifully with a two-hander crosscourt for a winner. Djokovic had the set 6-4, and the momentum was with him. The last thing he wanted was a long three set contest against an indefatigable opponent. Djokovic needed to finish it off in straight sets.

With Nadal serving at 0-1 in the second set, the Spaniard bolted to 40-0 but Djokovic battled back forcefully. That game went to deuce four times before Djokovic got the break by winning a 25 stroke rally. Djokovic sent a penetrating forehand crosscourt that Nadal could not control on the sliced backhand down the line. Djokovic was ahead 2-0, but he began the third game with his only double fault of the match. At 30-40, Djokovic missed a backhand drop shot down the line. Nadal served his way out of a 15-40 corner to make it 2-2. Djokovic had briefly lost his competitive edge. In the fifth game, Djokovic was ahead 40-0 but Nadal stubbornly made it back to deuce. Had Djokovic faltered here, he might have lost some of the composure that has carried him so impressively across the first five months of 2011.

He most certainly did not. At deuce, Djokovic pulled Nadal out of position with a penetrating inside-out forehand, and then went behind the Spaniard again with another sizzling inside-out forehand, which was an outright winner. Djokovic held on for 3-2, but Nadal was not ceding any ground. He aced Djokovic down the T for 40-15 in the sixth game. Djokovic pushed the score to deuce, but Nadal held on with high intensity for 3-3. In the following game at 30-30, Djokovic took a taxing 29 stroke rally from Nadal, driving a forehand crosscourt for a winner. He held for 4-3 but Nadal was fighting furiously. At 3-4, he released another ace down the T for 40-15, and held at 15 for 4-4.

Serving at 4-4, 15-30, Djokovic remained calm and collected. He took another high trajectory backhand from Nadal, stepped in, and cracked a two-hander crosscourt for a winner. He held for 5-4 after one deuce, and Nadal was serving to stay in the match. The first point of that tenth game was symbolic of Nadal’s growing problems with Djokovic in long rallies. He lost a 23 stroke exchange with a two-handed crosscourt backhand long. Djokovic followed with scintillating two-handed backhand winner crosscourt, and then Nadal missed another two-hander long. It was 0-40, triple match point for Djokovic.

Atypically, Djokovic missed wildly with a two-hander down the line. At 15-40, Nadal went wide to the forehand in the deuce court, and Djokovic had no play on his return. Then Nadal went on the attack, coming in on a crosscourt forehand to force Djokovic into a passing shot error. It was deuce. Nadal had remarkably cast aside three match points. But Djokovic gained control of the next rally, harming Nadal again with an inside-out forehand that was too much for the Spaniard to handle. Now at match point for the fourth time, Djokovic approached the net as Nadal’s forehand clipped the net cord. Nadal went for a crosscourt backhand pass, but that also clipped the net cord, which was a good break for Djokovic. He had time to rip a forehand crosscourt, and Nadal had to lunge for a two-handed backhand that he could not make. Djokovic had won 6-4, 6-4, competing an almost impossible mission of taking apart Nadal two weeks in a row on clay without losing a set.

Nadal had played much better than he had in Madrid, to no avail. As was the case in Madrid, he was always under pressure to hold serve. In that loss he was broken five times in two sets. In Rome, he was broken in four out of ten service games. Djokovic beat him to the punch in almost every department. His backhand was decidedly better than Nadal. His forehand was marginally superior to the Spaniard’s. And Djokovic served more convincingly. Nadal won only 25% of his second serve points (5 out of 20) while Djokovic took 7 of his 15 second serve points for a far more respectable 47%. Curiously, it is in the tight corners of the two most recent contests that Nadal has gone wrong. He came from two breaks down and 0-4 to reach 5-5 in the first set against Djokovic in Madrid, but lost his serve again at 5-6. In the second set, he was broken at 4-5. In Rome, the pattern was the same. At 4-5 in both sets, Nadal was unable to hold. That was symbolic of Djokovic’s extraordinary confidence these days, but also revealing about Nadal’s apprehension in dealing with Djokovic.

Meanwhile, world No. 3 Roger Federer was hoping to get a bunch of matches under his belt in Rome after reaching the penultimate round in Madrid, but that did not happen. He handled Jo-Wilfried Tsonga with ease, but then was beaten in a terrific match by Gasquet. Gasquet had beaten Federer back in 2005 on clay at Monte Carlo in a final set tie-break, saving match points in that contest. But he had lost all eight of his clashes with Federer in the ensuing years, taking only two sets in those battles. This time around, Federer took a 6-4, 4-2 lead, although it may not have been as easy as it appeared. In the opening set, Federer had a 2-0 lead, lost three games in a row, and then regained his balance from 2-3, 0-30 to seal the set.

The turning point came with Federer serving at 4-3, 30-40 in the second set. He played a backhand drop volley crosscourt, and Gasquet scampered in swiftly, going down the line off his backhand. Federer tried to go behind Gasquet with a forehand volley down the line, but Gasquet lunged to his left and pulled off an audacious backhand volley winner crosscourt. Gasquet had the break for 4-4, but was down 15-40 in the ninth game. He aced his way out of one break point, and then provoked a backhand passing shot error from Federer on the next one. Gasquet snuck out of that game. On they went to a tie-break, and Gasquet stepped up to that moment in the largest possible way.

With Federer serving at 2-3, Gasquet worked Federer’s backhand and the Swiss sliced the ball long. The Frenchman then challenged Federer forehand, and was not found wanting. Gasquet connected for a clean winner to make it 5-2. Federer missed another sliced backhand on the next point, and Gasquet produced a service winner to Federer’s backhand. The Frenchman took the tie-break on a run of six consecutive points, seven points to two. Both players settled into a well played final set. Federer won 24 of 27 points on serve en route to another tie-break (holding three times at love and three times at 15) while Gasquet won 24 of 31 points on his delivery. Neither player came close to facing a break point.

And so it was settled in a third set tie-break. Gasquet got a quick mini-break on the first point as Federer miss hit a topspin backhand out off a deep return from the Frenchman. Federer got back to 1-2, but the next point was telling. Federer went for his renowned inside-out forehand, but Gasquet read that play and laced a stunning backhand down the line winner. Federer rallied to 3-3 but netted another topspin backhand off a deep ball from Gasquet. Now serving at 3-4, Federer had little margin for error. Gasquet drilled a forehand crosscourt with added velocity to rush Federer into a sliced forehand, open stance error.

The drama was not over. At 3-5, Federer absorbed the pace of a blistering crosscourt forehand from Gasquet, and flicked a forehand down the line. Knowing he had Gasquet on the run, Federer instinctively moved in to knock off a forehand swing volley winner. Gasquet was serving at 5-4. Federer went for an inside-out forehand winner and missed it wide. Gasquet then closed out the match as Federer missed another topspin backhand long. Gasquet had struck back boldly for a 4-6, 7-6 (2), 7-6 (4) victory, one of the biggest of his career. He backed it up by topping Berdych before losing to Nadal.

The Frenchman will turn 25 next month, and he is playing the finest tennis of his life. Perhaps at long last Gasquet will bring out his best tennis at Roland Garros, where he has lost in the first round four times in seven appearances. He has never gone beyond the third round. It will be enjoyable to follow his progress this time around, and fun as well to see if Murray can make an impact on the red clay after his best season yet on the dirt. Most of all, it will be a pleasure to watch Djokovic and Nadal as they try to set up another final round appointment. Djokovic will take his astonishing 37 match 2011 season winning streak into Roland Garros, along with his 39 match streak overall since the end of 2010. That will give him a chance to make history of a high order. If he wins the French Open, he would extend his season streak to 44 matches, surpassing John McEnroe’s 1984 season opening streak of 42 in a row. In turn, he would tie Guillermo Vilas’s Open Era record of 46 consecutive wins with a tournament triumph in Paris.

Keep in mind that McEnroe took his 1984 streak all the way into the final of Roland Garros, where he took a two sets to love lead over Ivan Lendl. But Lendl retaliated to topple McEnroe in a classic five set contest. The view here is that history is going to repeat itself, with Rafael Nadal overcoming Novak Djokovic over five tumultuous sets in the final of the upcoming French Open. If they get to the final and go the full five sets, could it get any better than that?

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