Nadal, Djokovic: When Bad Things Happen to Good Tennis Players

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Nadal, Djokovic: When Bad Things Happen to Good Tennis Players
(Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Hast not thou made an hedge about him, and about his house, and about all that he hath on every side? … But put forth thine hand now, and touch all that he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face.
—Job 1:10


On May 16, World No. 1 Rafael Nadal faced Novak Djokovic in the semifinals of the Madrid Masters Series event. It was their third meeting in as many Masters tourneys, and the two young guns looked to be the strongest clay court players in the field leading up to Roland Garros.

Their four-hour, three-set duel stretched into a third-set tiebreaker, with Nadal playing clutch tennis to save three match points near the end.

Despite being outplayed for much of the day and losing more games than the Serb, the Spaniard prevailed 11-9 in the final tiebreaker, thus preserving his chances to pull off the hat trick of winning all three clay court Masters shields for 2009.

Djokovic had played his best and fought his hardest for four hours, but the scoreboard said that he lost the match.

Well, two months have passed, and now we know the truth: They both lost that day.


For the thing which I greatly feared is come upon me, and that which I was afraid of is come unto me.
—Job 3:25



Nadal had appeared set to prove that his perpetually aching knee would not derail his chances of winning the RG a fifth time. After a lackluster spring, Djokovic seemed ready to re-establish himself as a Grand Slam contender.

By all appearances this match indicated how much progress he’d made tactically, while at the same time displaying Nadal’s inimitable heart and will.

In the third round of Roland Garros, a listless, dispirited Djokovic lost to Philipp Kohlschreiber.

He then squandered an opportunity in his next event out, falling in the final of Halle against Tommy Haas, and hasn’t entered Wimbledon with such a shortage of momentum in three, maybe four years.

But his turnabout is nothing compared to Nadal’s. The day after his match with Djokovic he succumbed to Roger Federer in straight sets. In the fourth round of Roland Garros, he suffered his first-ever defeat in the world’s premiere clay court event.

Due to knee troubles aggravated by the long clay season, Nadal has yet to play since Paris, meaning Wimbledon is without its defending champion.

And since Paris, fans and pundits have spilt much ink and employed many pixilated characters toward reasoning as to why the fortunes of two outstanding young players could change so dramatically.


Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?
—Job 38:2



In the case of Djokovic, they have asked why his results could suddenly become so listless, just as he was beginning to regain his swing.

Could he not handle the pressure he had built up for himself? Were his promising early results an aberration masking the fact that he did not a champion’s fortitude?

Between Roland Garros and Wimbledon, Djokovic said that this four-hour marathon loss to Nadal “exhausted [him] mentally” and added, “I am still trying to recover.”

That’s what we saw in Paris: Djokovic was only in Paris physically. So developed is his all-around game that this was enough to win two matches, but against the German Kohlschreiber, one of the game’s streakiest, most exquisite ball-strikers, it wasn’t nearly enough.

We expect a star athlete to have a cast-iron will inoculated from disappointment. But did it not take Roger Federer months to really recover from his Australian Open defeat this year? Did Pete Sampras not spend nearly a year getting over his U.S. Open loss to Stefan Edberg in 1992?

From Mark Antony to Truman Capote, human beings have long let emotion mar their performances, leading them to diminished results.

This is life. 


No doubt but ye are the people, and wisdom shall die with you.
—Job 12:2

The first five months of 2009 suggested that Nadal was headed for the best year of his career: his first hard court major, only his fifth hard court Masters series event, and nearly a clean sweep of the clay court season.

Going into Paris, his lead over Federer in the points race was gaping; nearly as big as Federer’s was over the rest of the field from 2004 to 2007.

All that has changed, first with a sudden defeat from the huge-hitting wild card Robin Soderling ending his domination over Parisian clay.

Though his knee problems are well-documented, observers have been shocked at the recent severity of his injury, as his inability to defend Queens, and then Wimbledon, have left a void near the top of the game.

Federer’s success in Paris was heartwarming, but this year’s Wimbledon lacks the sense of anticipation found in the 2008 event, when many of us correctly suspected that their battle for the final would be a titanic one.

Now it will be a relief just for the Spaniard to play again. Nadal’s injury was probably aggravated by the length of his play in that one Madrid match, but it was a problem long in development.

Who was to blame for the world’s No. 1 overexerting himself in the lead-up to the RG? Why was he playing Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Rome and Madrid with nary a break in between them, and thus placing further risk upon his fragile limbs?

Those who ask this question are welcomed to suggest which events he should have skipped. Maybe he should have passed up on Monte Carlo or Rome, the primary warm-up events for Roland Garros.

Of course, in doing so he would have ceded preparation to his opponents and emboldened them through rumors that his health was failing before the RG.

Perhaps he should have skipped Barcelona, a minor event worth fewer points, or Madrid, a new Master’s event he all but expressed disdain for.

Of course, doing so would have lead his home press and possibly compatriot fans to savage him as the local boy who let fame go to his head, causing him to neglect his countrymen.

And, of course, Nadal had played (and won) each of these events in previous years; suddenly skipping one for anything less than an emergency would have given the tournament directors cause to smear him in the press (much as the director of Queens did to Sampras in 2002) and creating further off-court distractions for him.

With this set of options, Nadal did what he has done time and again since becoming a major champion: He risked his health in hopes of satisfying everyone. This time it didn’t pay off.

The ATP tour is a bloated bureaucracy, and writers as diverse as King Solomon and George Orwell have expressed one common truth: The institutions of men serve their masters, not those who actually make them run.

This is life.


I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth.
— Job 19:25



Who wants to read a story about a tennis player, or any other person, who always succeeds and never suffers?

Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic both lost in Hamburg, but their current setbacks don’t deny them the chance to succeed later. Djokovic may not win Wimbledon, but his form has been improving with each match. Most importantly, he’s only 22, and will have more opportunities to seize.

His doctors say Nadal will be ready to play again in weeks. There is, therefore, reason to suspect we’ll see him in better shape at the U.S. Open than ever before.

After all, the last time he was out of action for months leading up to a major was this winter, in the lead up to Australia.

Had Djokovic not played so well in the Madrid semifinal his disappointment would not have been so exhausting.

Had Nadal not been so determined to not lose against Djokovic on that day he would have lost sooner, and gotten more rest.

But life doesn’t always reward merit; at least not when we suspect it will. Both Nadal and Djokovic lost in Madrid, but this can make their later successes sweeter.

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