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Steve Flink: Djokovic Does It Again

9/12/2011 11:00:00 PM

FLUSHING MEADOWS— It could not have been more fitting that Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal met in the last Grand Slam tournament final of 2011. Djokovic had triumphed commendably at the Australian Open and Wimbledon, while Nadal had garnered a sixth French Open title. Either Djokovic would capture a third major for the year, or Nadal would find a way to take a second. They have established themselves unequivocally as the two greatest players in the game, and have carried themselves honorably across the season, representing themselves and their sport with unfailing professionalism and unwavering pride. They have gone about their business with unshakable spirit and admirable sportsmanship, and I have enjoyed watching all of their finals in 2011. They never fail to push each other to their limits, to produce tennis of the highest order, and to throw themselves whole-heartedly into every match they play against each other. The way I see it, tennis could do no better than to have these two outstanding individuals keep clashing over the next couple of years at the majors.

But after watching Djokovic stop the defending champion Nadal for the sixth consecutive time this year by securing a 6-2, 6-4, 6-7 (3), 6-1 triumph to win his first U.S. Open crown, the feeling grows that the depth of Djokovic’s conviction when he has an appointment with Nadal is so substantial that it is almost inconceivable the Spaniard will ever regain the upper hand in this rivalry. Think about what Djokovic has done against his premier rival this year. When the season commenced, Nadal held a commanding 16-7 lead in their career series, and he had never lost to the estimable Spaniard in a Grand Slam event. But now the chemistry of this rivalry has been altered dramatically. The Nadal lead in their series has been cut to 16-13. Nadal has lost four set matches to the Serbian in the last two Grand Slam finals at Wimbledon and now the U.S. Open.

What has brought about this astonishing reversal of fortunes? Is Nadal no longer the majestic figure who swept through the last three majors of 2010 with supreme confidence? Or is this more a case of Djokovic transforming himself so comprehensively as a player and a person that he has simply surpassed Nadal by virtue of his greatness as a top of the line match player and champion? These are difficult questions to answer, but the view from my corner is that Djokovic has moved beyond himself to a level he could never have imagined a year ago. He is celebrating one of the finest years of any player in the Open Era, winning 64 of 66 matches thus far in 2011, securing ten of the twelve tournaments he has played, performing with a sophistication and steadfastness he always lacked in the past. Nadal has earnestly and unrelentingly looked for ways to turn the tables on Djokovic and rediscover the art of winning.

But Djokovic has stopped him cold in his tracks, cutting Nadal down in four Masters 1000 finals in addition to his victories at Wimbledon and here at the Open. Twice he has taken Nadal apart on clay this year without the loss of a set. Once he has ousted the Spaniard on the grass. Thrice he has been the better man in their hard court duels. He is the master of his craft, and no matter what Nadal attempts to do to thwart him, Djokovic has the answers.

Let’s analyze their latest match. First and foremost, Nadal never controlled his destiny on his own serve as Djokovic kept his returns almost impossibly deep with immense power and remarkable accuracy. In 18 service games over the four sets, he was broken no fewer than 11 times. When you are under siege every time you serve, there is no way you are going to prevail. Nadal connected with 68% of his first deliveries, and yet he won only 52% of his first serve points and 42% on his second serve. Those are staggeringly disturbing numbers for a man of Nadal’s stature. He was forever at bay during this bruising four hour and ten minute battle because holding serve was such an ordeal. To be sure, Djokovic happens to be the best returner in the game of tennis. But what made it all even more discouraging for Nadal is how hard he tried to change his patterns and keep Djokovic off balance.

Nadal attempted to go wide to the forehand in the deuce court, did his best to swing the slice serve out wide at acute angles in the Ad court, mixed up his speeds, and went for some big serves down the T. In the end, nothing worked. He did break Djokovic six times, but it meant very little because he would feel immediate pressure to make those breaks count and turn them into something of value. Consider the opening set. Nadal was sharp off the forehand and moving well. He broke Djokovic for a 2-0 lead by coaxing errors off the Serbian’s stellar two-handed backhand side. That is no mean feat.

Yet Djokovic knew he could strike back at Nadal almost any time he wanted. In stark contrast to a year ago—when Nadal was dictating the flow of the match with his heavy topspin forehand crosscourt and his inside-out forehand—the pattern of this match did not resemble the 2010 final at all. Djokovic broke back for 1-2 as an overanxious Nadal missed five of six first serves. Djokovic was pushing Nadal back dangerously far behind the baseline. Nadal could not get on top of the rallies because his opponent was hurting him considerably off both the forehand and the backhand. Djokovic seldom let Nadal take charge off the forehand, and he broke down Nadal’s backhand with consummate authority. Nadal’s options were far more restricted than those of Djokovic, who was striking the ball freely, leaving Nadal in constant disarray.

At 1-2 in that first set, Djokovic was down 15-40, but he saved three break points on his way back to 2-2, erasing the last of those with a 123 MPH ace out wide in the Ad court. Nadal was clearly disheartened, and Djokovic had his bearings and liked his chances. At 2-2, Nadal won a spectacular point to reach 40-30, but Djokovic refused to let him hold. With Nadal’s shots off both sides landing shorter and shorter, Djokovic countered with terrific depth. He broke through for 3-2 with an inside-out forehand winner. There was no stopping Djokovic from that juncture. He held on for 4-2 from deuce as Nadal missed wildly with a forehand down the line, broke Nadal in the seventh game at 30 despite six consecutive first serves in from the Spaniard, and held at love to close out the set on a run of six straight games. Nadal’s early edge had evaporated swiftly.

In the second set, a similar scenario unfolded. With Djokovic serving at 0-1, 30-40, Nadal ripped a forehand up the line that was too much for Djokovic to handle. The Spaniard had a quick 2-0 lead. He fought valiantly to make it 3-0. There were eight deuces in that game. Nadal had three game points. But Djokovic demoralized the Spaniard with his sparkling returns. After the last deuce, Nadal double faulted and Djokovic took the 22 point, 18 minute game with a brilliant piece of retrieving. Nadal had seemingly placed a volley out of the Serbian’s reach, but Djokovic scampered forward and somehow managed to throw up a short lob. Nadal should have put his overhead away, but was so startled by Djokovic’s get that he bungled the smash completely.

Djokovic was emboldened by that development. He held at love for 2-2 and then broke Nadal at 15 for 3-2, with the Spaniard serving another double fault at 15-40 after Djokovic pushed him around from the baseline with utter ease and conviction. Djokovic held at love for 4-2, and had secured four games in a row. He seemed certain to run out the set. But Nadal remains an unflagging competitor even on the darkest of days. He held on in an arduous four deuce game for 3-4. Then Nadal broke back for 4-4, connecting boldly with a backhand down the line passing shot winner. But Djokovic went back to work without hesitation. He broke for 5-4 as Nadal pressed considerably, making three unforced errors off the forehand. At break point down, Nadal was forced to retreat behind the baseline again as Djokovic took control off the forehand. He rushed Nadal into a miss-hit backhand error.

And so the Serbian was serving for a two sets to love lead. At 5-4, 40-15, Djokovic was on the dead run, chasing a well struck Nadal backhand crosscourt. Djokovic laced a forehand down the line that was dazzling, giving Nadal no chance to respond. The set belonged to the No. 1 seed. And he quickly tried to press his advantage and close out the match on his own terms. Yet it was apparent as the third set wore on that Djokovic was not able to maintain the astonishingly high standards he had set to move out in front. He broke Nadal for 2-1 but could not consolidate it. At 2-2, he gained another service break after three deuces on Nadal’s serve, pressuring Nadal into another mistake off the backhand. It was in the sixth game that Djokovic’s physical woes became more apparent. He was broken at love. Djokovic was no longer moving with the same alacrity, and the sting had gone decidedly from his shots. Nadal released two forehand winners, and Djokovic double faulted to fall behind 0-40.

At 3-4, a struggling Djokovic trailed 30-40, but he had just enough energy to scrape out of that corner. At break point down, he won a long and demanding rally with a magnificent backhand down the line winner and soon he held on for 4-4. Both players held to make it 5-5, and then Djokovic made his move, breaking Nadal with an immaculately struck backhand down the line winner that landed right smack on the baseline. Now Djokovic was serving for the match at 6-5. He was two points away from a straight set triumph at 30-30 but he tightened up ever so slightly, sending a backhand down the line long. Then he went for an inside-out forehand winner, the same shot he had played with such assurance across the first two sets. But this one missed wide.

On to the tie-break they went, but Djokovic was sputtering, and Nadal sensed it. The Spaniard raced to a 5-1 lead, lost the next two points, but then shifted brilliantly from defense to offense to drill a backhand winner down the line. It was 6-3. Djokovic has nothing left. He hit an inside-out forehand tamely into the set. The set belonged to a revitalized Nadal, and the crowd was eupeptic. Djokovic has some problems at the start of the fourth set holding serve. He was having a problem with his back, and his movement was not up to par. But he managed to hold on for 1-0 after two deuces, coming forward to make a forehand volley winner. His willingness to get to the net was a real strength throughout the contest, and he won 31 of 47 points when he approached. This one for 1-0 was among the biggest. He then called for the trainer, took a medical timeout, and that seemed to reassure the Serbian big time. In the next game his ground game picked up considerably, and he made a concerted effort to get a quick break and reestablish his authority. Nadal recognized the importance of this game as well, fighting off four break points. But on the fifth, Djokovic took a backhand crosscourt from Nadal and redirected it down the line for a clean winner. Djokovic had the break for 2-0, and his inner conviction was back. He held at 15 for 3-0. Nadal managed to hold easily for 1-3, but he would not win another game.

Although Djokovic was deliberately not serving hard, the reduced velocity did not hurt him at all; in fact, it helped set up his ground strokes more convincingly. He held at love for 4-1, then broke Nadal at love in for 5-1, opening up that game with two outright winners. Nadal knew that the end was near. He did battle back from 30-0 down to 30-30 in the final game, but Djokovic sent a backhand down the line for a winner and closed the account in style with an inside-out forehand winner.

This was his tenth tournament triumph in twelve 2011 events, and he raised his record to 64-2. Djokovic had saved two match points in his riveting semifinal skirmish with Roger Federer, and so he is the first man since Andy Roddick in 2003 to win the U.S. Open after saving at least one match point along the way. That is a rare achievement. Pete Sampras realized that feat in 1996, Boris Becker did it in 1989 and Manuel Orantes did so in 1975. Djokovic also hit some other statistical milestones. He is only the sixth man in the Open Era to win at least three major titles in a season, joining Rod Laver (who won the Grand Slam in 1969), Jimmy Connors (1974), Mats Wilander (1988), Federer (2004, 2006 and 2007) and Nadal (2010) in that category. Moreover, Djokovic is only the eighth man in the Open Era to pull off the Wimbledon-U.S. Open double in the same year, joining Laver, Connors, John McEnroe, Boris Becker, Pete Sampras, Federer, and Nadal in that category.

Who knows where the Serbian will go from here? It seems certain that he will not lose more than one or two more matches this season, so he will undoubtedly place his name right up there among those who have had the best years ever in the Open Era. Laver’s 1969 Grand Slam season was a standout, Connors at 99-4 in 1974 was spectacular (he won three majors), and McEnroe was 82-3 on 1984. Djokovic will be in no mood to let his guard down the rest of this year, but he will also have the good sense to get some rest and save himself for a challenging 2012 campaign.

He now has won four majors, and the view here is that he could well reach double digits before he is through with his great career. Novak Djokovic is now the consummate professional, a man who knows what he wants and fully understands how to accomplish it, and a champion through and through. He is a very worthy U.S. Open champion, and now he has captured three of the four major championships, winning a total of four Grand Slam events in all. I believe he will join the career Grand Slam club sometime in the next couple of years. At 24, Djokovic is on top of the world, and he won’t be leaving that residence any time soon.

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