Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Australian Open 2012: Reactions

I think it's fitting that my response to one of the most exhilarating Grand Slams in the recent history of tennis has taken a while to be mulled over and committed in writing. For how do you do justice to a 6 hour long Grand Slam final (the longest Grand Slam final in history) in which two men combined to produce possibly the most titanic physical and mental battle the sport has ever seen? My impression after the match was of incomprehensibility; an inability to put into words what had just been witnessed. It was an epic of such mountainous proportions that victory and defeat became but circumstantial in the grand scheme of what was surely one of the great finals from any sport in the world. It transcended the boundaries of tennis as a niche sport, grabbed the attention of sports fans around the world, and did wonders for a sport that some have foolishly accused of not being capable of brutality. It has become tiring in the past 6 months to say it, but both men have contributed to raising the bar once again, accomplishing history and producing another dimension to the golden era. It has set the tone (and the bar) for the rest of the year, as well as setting off feverish speculation over what could happen this season, which just so happens to be an Olympic one. Here are my thoughts, predictions, and pontifications from the Australian Open.

What more to say about Novak Djokovic? He survived the longest Grand Slam in history, facing no less than one of the greatest warriors to ever play the game, and he did it 48 hours after another 5 set epic with Andy Murray, in which he was similarly faced with defeat in the final set. He looked a beaten man at times in both matches, but Djokovic has a well of unshakeable determination these days that he can reach into when he needs it the most. The man has become almost nerveless under pressure, and unflinchingly brave at crunch time in matches. The reaction after the final was not just of awe at the historic event, but partly the astonishment that Djokovic had managed to turn the match around against a man known for being a mental giant, and following what was a seismic shift in momentum at the time. Momentum is an almost impossible thing to stop, but Djokovic has shown time and time again that he can stand in front of the freight train, take its impact and power his way back into the match when all the odds are against him. It takes a phenomenal exertion of willpower to do that, and Djokovic did it twice in a row when it mattered the most. Mentally he is the man of steel right now, and it will take a mighty loss to dent his confidence, which is sky high and beyond right now. As for his tennis, his return game was more lethal than ever, reducing Rafael Nadal to admiration of what he can do with that shot, and offering praise for a weapon which was without doubt the reason he managed to fight his way back into the match. He may well be the best returner in history, better than Connors, better than Agassi. His groundstrokes were heavy, impeccably measured and devastating for Rafael Nadal, who was only intermittently able to control the pace of the bombardment. His forehand was firing, and his backhand was unbreakable as ever. Of the top 4,  he has the fewest weaknesses, and they are only relative ones at that. His forehand is however still the best target to attack, and Nadal went to that spot with varying success; and a potential element lacking in his game is his unwillingness to attack the net when the opportunity arises. But the bottom line is that it will take a stupendous performance, such as that produced by Nadal or Murray to even get close to defeating him. While Djokovic has emerged the victor, there is hope at least that Djokovic's hunters will eventually get to overturn him at a Grand Slam.

For Rafael Nadal, it was a hugely positive progression. After being virtually smoked in every match he played with Djokovic since Miami, he pushed Djokovic to the limit and then some. He forced him to struggle for his 5th Grand Slam and into a deciding set, which he very nearly clinched, and probably should have done after leading 4-2 with the wind of momentum firmly behind him. He was playing aggressively, serving effectively and looked re-energised after eking out the 4th set so emphatically, before he made the possibly fatal error of missing a simple backhand putaway serving at 30-15. At the time it was a hugely significant miss and gave Djokvic the impetus he needed to turn the match around, but Nadal was quick in his post-mortem conference to dismiss the impression of the shot as the reason he was broken, and eventually lost the match. He instead pointed lucidly and not lamentedly to the brilliance of Djokovic's return game - and it was an incredible return that forced Nadal to spill a forehand on break point that enabled him to get back into the match. It is not only admirable for Nadal to recognise that the Serb may well be the greatest returner in the history of the game, but healthy for him to acknowledge that it was not just an error on his part that lost the match, but also the shot which (not coincidentally) bailed him out of the US Open semi-final when he was match point down. Despite suffering arguably the most crushing loss of his career, he left with a remarkable sense of direction, and  the knowledge that he has the ability to put himself in positions to win against his nemesis again. And should they meet once more at the French Open, I cannot imagine that he will lose to Djokovic on his home turf. As far as paradoxes go, it was an encouraging loss. There were however still elements where Djokovic's superiority was apparent, and which Nadal must improve quickly. He avowed to play inside the court and be more aggressive against Djokovic, but for the majority of the match he reverted to his defensive mode and stayed well behind the baseline in rallies and when receiving serve. Too often he fell into his own trap of going crosscourt into Djokovic's backhand with the same ineffective result, and was too predictable with his tactics. On the other hand, he served better than in the US Open final, producing 10 aces, and during the tournament seemed to have improved his sliding left hander serve, which worked particularly effectively against Berdych and Federer. However it still baffles commentators where his huge 130 mph+ serve which he unveiled at the 2010 US Open has gone to. He needs it more than ever, and it would be a big weapon to mobilise against the return game of Djokovic.

It was Djokovic's third Australian Open, his fifth Grand Slam, and his third major in a row starting with Wimbledon last year. He has his sights set on the French Open and the accomplishment of the 'Djoker slam', and should he manage that, well, the effect on the tennis world would be earth shattering. He would be the only man other than Rod Laver to achieve four slams in a row, and furthermore in the presence of two of the greatest players to play the game, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. After winning the Laureus Award for Sportsman of the Year, he was quoted as saying he believes anything as possible, including winning Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the Olympics. One thing is for certain: Nadal, Federer and Murray will all be out to make sure that feat is a bridge too far.