Friday, 16 September 2011

US Open 2011 Men's Final Reaction: New Champion Novak Djokovic

Novak Djokovic def. Rafael Nadal 6-2, 6-4, 6-7, 6-1

After just over 4 hours of intense all court, all out conflict with Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic has topped off a magnificent year by claiming his first US Open, and his third Grand Slam this season. Over a year that has got better and better for the Serb, the superlatives are becoming quickly exhausted but entirely justified for a season that is in contention for being the best compiled by any tennis player. He is one of only 6 players to win 3 Grand Slams in a year, which includes Rafael Nadal (only last year) and Roger Federer, and extended his dominance over the world no.2 Nadal to 6 straight wins.

All that has taken him to the peak of tennis was on display. His new found physical endurance and mental toughness; his geometrically precise backhand and powerful forehand; his aggressive court positioning and fluid movement; his ferocious return of serve - as well as the finer points which only champions have: bravery and the intangible ability to play clutch at the most pressured moments. It was a very familiar match to their last 5 encounters, following a pattern of play whereby Djokovic pinned Nadal with heavy groundstroke after heavy groundstroke, targeting Nadal's backhand until it broke down or forced a short reply. The first two sets were in all honesty a sedate affair in which Nadal's submission to the scoreline of 6-2 and 6-4 respectively, was borne both of being outplayed, and a seeming tentativeness from Nadal to attack Djokovic. After leading in both sets, Nadal dropped the breaks he had engineered very weakly by playing defensive, passive tennis and with a seeming lack of conviction that he could subdue Djokovic. By the time Djokovic broke to go two breaks up in the first set, he was the puppet master, pulling Nadal about on a string as he soaked up all the groundstrokes thrown at him and hit dropshots as casually as if it were an exhibition match. However, in the first two sets, apart from being up a break in both, Nadal never looked to trouble Djokovic from the baseline and was already struggling to defend his service games against the latter's superior returns. Despite Nadal's avowal to do something different in the final, he inexplicably did everything that he had been doing unsuccessfully against Djokovic all year. As I outlined in my preview of the final, I identified that Nadal's strategy with his forehand would be an important marker of success against Djokovic, as his usual pattern of play whereby he attacks the Serb's backhand with heavy topspin forehands, has proven to be futile in the recent past. Djokovic's backhand is so technically sound, that even Nadal's forehand cannot counter how smoothly he defends off that wing, taking the ball on the rise and being able to hit winners consistently down the line. Nadal continued to go crosscourt with the same play and time after time Djokovic was able to redirect the ball wider to Nadal's forehand and exploit the ground he had given up. Nadal also gave up ground by hitting shallow defensive slices, and although at times it had some effect, it more than often gave Djokovic the license to pick his spots.

Second, I said the serve would be key, as it is for anyone else playing Djokovic, in order to have the best chance to knock him off balance and try to take control of a point before he gets into a rally. Nadal served poorly, and even though Djokovic surely must be considered to be one of the best returners in the history of the game, a serve that lands in the middle of the service box barely travelling above 100mph and with no direction is wont to be returned with all the venom that Djokovic gave them the other night. Nadal's first serve average was a weak 107mph, and at one point he even hit one under 100mph. That kind of tentative, directionless serving is simply not good enough to trouble Djokovic, and Nadal knows it as he admitted in his presser that he had a terrible serving day. A year ago, his serve took him to his first US Open title, reaching speeds in excess of 130mph and ensuring he was only broken on serve a handful of times, but it seems to have regressed, and Nadal knows he has to address it in the coming months if he is to finish the year strongly.

But for all the plaudits Djokovic is deservedly receiving, Nadal must be applauded too. After being comprehensively outplayed in the first two sets, he mounted a ferocious comeback when it seemed as if the match was going to end in straight sets. Crucially, he changed his strategy in the third set, and started to attack Djokovic's forehand with the hugest topspin blasts from his forehand as he could muster. If Djokovic has the best down the line backhand in the sport, Nadal still has the most devastating down the line forehand, and when he began to crush more balls into that corner at around 2 games all it began to yield much more success as he began to hit more winners and force more errors off that wing. Djokovic still managed to break him, but Nadal was far from finished, summoning the legendary strength of will that defines him, and refusing to fall without a titanic fight. What followed was one of the greatest sets of tennis ever played: an astonishing display of some of the finest shotmaking and unbelievable athletic ability which lifted the tennis temporarily to an even higher plane than it is already on. The crowd reaction was indication enough, as many could not stifle their cries of disbelieving awe amidst watching rallies that were truly otherworldly. As with the Federer and Nadal match up, Nadal and Djokovic keep pushing each further and further to produce shots of previously inconceivable excellence. At 6-5 down in the third set, Nadal avoided going matchpoint down by winning what some have dubbed point of the tournament, quite possibly the year; a bruising rally over 20 strokes long in which both were virtually hitting winners at each other, only for either man to send each other's shots back. Earlier in the set, facing break point at 3-4 down, Djokovic finished an extended point almost identically, by hitting a backhand winner down the line. This was the standard of the points, and it was superhuman.

The brutal extended rallies of the third set however had by then run both athletes into the ground. Djokovic took a medical timeout, albeit at a rather contentious point in the 4th set while 1-0 up and before Nadal's service game, and Nadal appeared to have run out of gas completely. He was rolled 6-1 in the fourth and final set in antithesis to the spectacular battle that had preceded moments before as Djokovic managed a sprint finish, finding several forehand winners and ending on a flourish by lashing an inside out forehand past an exhausted Nadal. His fourth Grand Slam, his next target he professes to be the French Open, which would  make him, remarkably, the third man to complete the career Grand Slam within 5 years, along with the men he shadowed for so many years, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Furthermore, the year is not over yet, as how well he finishes the season will determine whether his really is the greatest year, with the World Tour Finals in November the last major title to win. Not just for Novak Djokovic, but for tennis, it has been an incredible year where boundaries have once again been broken and new standards set.

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