I still can't get the 2011 US Open Finals out of my mind.
Novak Djokovic played one of the most impressive tennis matches I've ever seen. I'd call it "a tennis masterpiece" and, believe it or not, I think he deserves even more credit for it.
It reminded me of such special sports moments as Pedro Martinez's beautiful one-hitter vs. the 1999 New York Yankees. The reason that analogy works is that Pedro had to pitch superbly in that Sept, 1999 game (17 strikeouts, no walks) in order to shut down that outstanding Yankee lineup, which went on to win another World Series. Sportswriter Tom Boswell called it the best game ever pitched in Yankee Stadium.
Djokovic had to play near perfectly to defeat Rafael Nadal a week ago. Nadal, like the 1999 Yankees, was at the top of his game and hungry to finally beat the Serbian, who had won six finals matches against him in 2011.
Much has been said and written about this match, but I still have not found sufficient explanation for three key themes that emerged.
Why is Djokovic the only tennis player in the world who seems able to pose unique problems for Nadal? What is Novak's brilliant strategy vs. Nadal?
1. Djokovic Kept Hitting the Ball Deep vs. Nadal
When I watched the match, the television commentators emphasized how important it was that Djokovic kept relentlessly hitting almost every ball deep to Nadal. I totally agreed. I noticed that Djokovic seemed to never give Nadal any opportunities to step into one of his ground strokes, particularly his lethal forehand. It's as if Djokovic sensed that he had to keep smothering Nadal with those deep shots—to give him no oxygen.
I read Djokovic's comment after the match when he said: "...I didn't give him (Nadal) any comfort. I didn't give him any room." http://www.nytimes.com/com/2011/09/13/sports/tennis/dominant-victory-in-dominant-year-for-... It was a simple quote, yet it explained so much. Djokovic clearly had learned lessons from watching Nadal's striking success vs. Roger Federer, who has hit many shallow shots that Nadal has pounced on to hit winners. Djokovic, remarkably, does this very little against Nadal and that takes boundless energy and discipline.
2. Djokovic Created and Seized Opportunities Point-to-Point vs. Nadal
Djokovic, in 2011, has proven he can "out-Nadal" Nadal by winning long rallies. Djokovic makes remarkably few errors, plays fantastic defense and amazingly, stays "ahead" of Nadal in many rallies by not only pushing Nadal to the back of the court, but by pushing Nadal from side-to-side with terrific hard-hit ground strokes.
I've been blown away by the level of Djokovic's improvement in his ground game. He appears to be the only player who can consistently beat Nadal in rallies.
Two key factors, it seems, are Novak's peaking confidence and his willingness to take more risks than Nadal. Djokovic exudes confidence against Nadal. He appears totally "comfortable"—as if he knows everything about Nadal's game and that he will find ways to outplay him.
It is true that he forces Nadal to become far more predictable than he seems to play against every other player. I think the biggest reason is Djokovic's determined effort to give Nadal no chances to hit winners and become more "offensive." The only time Nadal hit more repeated winners to the corners vs. Djokovic was during the set he won, 7-6. Clearly Nadal had trouble playing with that kind of confidence for most of the match.
3. Nadal, Puzzlingly, Served Much Less Effectively Vs. Djokovic.
I say "puzzlingly" because I still don't get why Nadal's serve went so downhill in 2011. He had served so well in 2010 and most attributed part of his success in winning three Grand Slam tournaments to his improved serve. Against Djokovic, Nadal's serve was more vulnerable than ever as he was broken multiple times.
You can't serve weakly against the best returner in the game.
The question is—How did Nadal, an incredible athlete, "lose" some effectiveness on his serve during 2011? Well, I guess we should all remember that Rafa had some unfortunate bumps in 2011, when he suffered from a few injuries, including a restaurant accident this past summer when he burned his fingers.
He seemed a bit tired in the US Open Finals, perhaps because he had to play three matches in four days at the end. Nadal spoke about his efforts to keep his confidence up (He acknowledged publicly that Djokovic had gotten in his head. http://www.nypost.com/p/sports/tennis/nadal_requested_delay_could_help_EK1LBtcCgikn6xTt98DVDP).
All I know is that at the end of 2010, I thought Nadal was virtually unbeatable. He seemed on top of the world. He could do it all on the court and his biggest obstacle seemed to be only his own health and whether he could keep playing such an exhausting, relentless brand of tennis for years.
Along came Novak Djokovic, who has stunned me with the level of his play.
My questions, going forward, are: Will Nadal be able to make adjustments that enable him to defeat Djokovic? And will Djokovic's consistency drop, leaving openings for Nadal to start winning Slams again?
I don't see how Djokovic can repeat his 2011 and I think Nadal is likely to return not only in top form, but with adjustments, to win a couple of Slams in 2012. Yet, I also predicted to myself—after the memorable 2008 Nadal-Federer Wimbledon final—that Federer would be able to make adjustments that allowed him to perform better vs. Nadal.
Except for the first part of his 2011 French Open final vs. Nadal, when he played a more aggressive brand of tennis, Federer has been unable to make big adjustments against Rafa and continued to lose to him most of the time.
Can Nadal now make adjustments vs. Djokovic? I think he can. He's much younger than Federer was when Nadal began to dominate him. Nadal needs his health and confidence back.
Any way you look at it, when you have an athlete as unique as Rafael Nadal suddenly and surprisingly meet an opponent who can match his brilliance, it means the rest of us are likely to enjoy a new, exciting rivalry for years to come.