Novak Djokovic walked of the court past 11 p.m. in Rome yesterday after more than three hours of grueling mental and physical play against the world No. 4, Andy Murray setting up the blockbuster final most fans had hoped for.
By contrast, Rafael Nadal had a fairly easy straight sets win in less than half the time getting off the court more than seven hours before Novak.
Not only that. Novak Djokovic was visibly tired against Murray from the second set and admitted as much in his post match interview saying that he’s played more than everyone else, so it’s only natural for him to be exhausted.
He has already beaten Rafa in three finals in a row, the last one in Madrid last week. The question is: Will he have enough left in the tank to do it again?
Even when he beat Rafa in Madrid, there was a slight asterisk attached to it. It was clay yes, but it played like a hard court and Madrid never was a fortress of Nadal’s the way Monte Carlo, Rome and Roland Garros are.
Rome and the French Open would provide the true test of whether Novak was really able to battle Rafa on the slow red clay.
Prior to the season as well as post the Madrid final, I argued that he does look more than ready to battle Rafa on any turf, the slow red clay included. The reason is that for the first time ever, Rafa faces an opponent who wins as many if not more of the long rallies as he does.
In their previous matches, Novak has found the much needed consistency to stay with and outlast Rafa in the baseline rallies. In principle, there’s no reason why this formula should not work in Rome too and Rafa suggested Novak should be the favourite if he were to win against Murray.
Alas, he did win against Murray, so is he now the favourite?
By no means. His ability to stay in the rallies with Nadal might be severely damaged by his longer and later played semifinal. If he can’t do that, he’s unlikely to beat Nadal on slow clay. The winners he was able to hit in Madrid on the faster clay will be harder to produce in Rome. Longer rallies is a natural consequence.
Does it mean that the result of the match is a foregone conclusion? By no means. Novak has shown us more than enough in the past six months for us to expect he’ll fold just because he’s slightly tired.
He still has the best return in the game and should be able to put pressure on Rafa in most of Rafa’s service games. Yesterday, his serve wasn’t at his best, but if it works better today, he has an advantage in that department. It then comes down to whether he has or hasn’t enough left in the tank to rally and stay on the court for another three hours, should that be needed.
Here, I think we can expect his supreme level of confidence will help him through some of the problems a tired body might produce. Will it be enough? Hard to say.
But one thing is sure. With the long Murray match in mind, all the pressure is right back on Rafa. If he fails to beat Novak 17 hours after the latter stepped off court on slow clay, what will it mean for his confidence?
Surely, it must take a blow. Rafa is expected to win. Novak can only continue to surprise us. Theoretically at least, that should free Novak from any pressure and potentially make Rafa tight. He does not enjoy being the favourite, but has learned to live with it. How will he deal with having to win this match to re-establish his status as the world No. 1 on clay and elsewhere?
I think he’s pretty keen to show he’s just where he’s always been:
On top of the tennis world during the European clay season.
May the best man win.