This match just won’t leave my mind.
As you know, I decided to do a LiveAnalysis post for this momentous semifinal (which you can be find here), and by the end, I was absolutely drained. Of energy, and of words. I was so wiped out, and I just typed on my keyboard while sitting in my living room - Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic played their heart out on Philippe Chatrier for over 4.5 hours in one of their traditionally brutal physical contests.
The match ended long ago, but images, thoughts and feelings about it keep swirling inside me. So here they are, in no particular order:
1. I keep coming back to this point: even though Novak Djokovic seemed emotionally flat during stretches of the first three sets, and to my taste used the wrong tactical gameplan (more on this later) for most of the match, he somehow was up a break on Rafael Nadal in the fifth set at Roland Garros. That’s just remarkable. How did this happen? One big reason is that Djokovic executed his chosen gameplan at a high-enough level that it masked the overall problems with said strategy.
2. Rafael Nadal’s tenacity in the fifth set, after the heartbreak of having served for the match in the fourth and failing to finish the job, was simply otherworldly. Not only that, but as the Spaniard quickly went down a break (and remained behind in the scoreboard all the way until 4-3 in that deciding set), he still kept fighting like a maniac. The all-time great from Manacor simply refused to go through another harrowing loss to Djokovic like the one he had to endure at the 2012 Australian Open final. I hope every aspiring junior in the world saw that fifth set: that’s how you fight on a tennis court.
3. Djokovic and Nadal have yet to put together a thoroughly excellent 5-setter. There are always highs and lows during their lengthy matches, but what they do achieve sometimes is to play fantastic sets of tennis. At the 2011 US Open final, it was the third set. At the 2012 Australian Open, it was the fourth. Today it was the fifth, which not only was full of ridiculous shotmaking, but also of enormous drama. I just couldn’t understand how both men were pulling out these seemingly impossible shots…after four sets of grueling tennis had already gone by.
4. About Djokovic’s tactics: to me, a sound gameplan involves one overarching thought, and it is simple: make your opponent beat you with their worst shot. Why on Earth would you let your rival have a shot to take you down using one of their preferred weapons? It’s near suicidal. However, that’s what Novak Djokovic did today by preferring to blast away at Nadal’s forehand corner instead of employing his more successful strategy, used to great effect as recently as Monte Carlo of this year, to patiently carve out the backhand corner with safer shots. Why do I think this is a bad idea? Because it puts a ton of pressure on Djokovic’s cross-court backhands and inside-out forehands to be near perfect. Anything less than that means that Nadal will have a chance to hit his lefty forehand down the line into a wide open alley. What’s worse, Nadal LOVES to hit that shot. So why give your opponent a chance to shine? What’s more, the hard, flat cross-court backhands and inside-out forehands Djokovic had to successfully execute to make this plan work are not high percentage shots, unlike the spinny cross-court forehands and soft-but-deep down-the-line backhands Djokovic started to employ in 2011 against Nadal in an effort to grind down the Spaniard’s backhand. To summarize:
- Why give Nadal a chance to hit one of his favorite shots?
- Why put yourself in a position where you have to consistently hit low-percentage shots…in a best-of-five match?
What I found fascinating was that this wasn’t even the first time Djokovic employed such a gameplan: back in the early years of this great rivalry, the exuberant and inexperienced version of the current 6-time Slam champ often resorted to that sort of strategy on clay, and it bore him no success at all: Djokovic would claim his first clay win over Nadal in 2011, and by that time, the clay head-to-head was 9-0 in Nadal’s favor.
Why did Djokovic resort to this old, unsuccessful gamplan, then? On the surface, it makes no sense. The element of surprise? Some observation about Nadal’s movement having deteriorated when he moves to that side of the court?
It’s particularly baffling given how well Djokovic used his more successful 2011 gameplan in Monte Carlo this year to great success. So here’s one explanation: the switch was done out of necessity, because Djokovic’s backhand down the line, an essential part of the 2011 gameplan, was far from reliable today. I wonder if the shoulder injury that’s been reportedly affecting Novak in the past few weeks has disrupted his pristine timing on that shot. Let’s remember that hitting a down-the-line shot presents two problems: you’re hitting over the highest part of the net, and your timing has to be perfect, given that you are changing the direction of the ball. The shot simply won’t work if there’s something that’s disturbing the swing. Again, this is just me theorizing.
5. One pattern I’ve noticed this year in Djokovic has been the surprising number of backhand unforced errors in big matches. The Serb’s two-hander is arguably the best in the business, and it’s the bedrock upon which his entire game is built on. But I’ve seen him leak unforced errors off that wing in plenty of big matches this year. The Del Potro semifinal loss at Indian Wells comes to mind. Today Djokovic ended with 28 forehand unforced errors, which is fine – that’s the shot he uses to be aggressive most of the time. However, Djokovic finished with just one fewer backhand unforced error (27). Compare that to Rafael Nadal, who finished with 20 forehand UFEs (again, a normal number), but just 13 backhand UFEs.
Why is this happening? I have no idea. But Djokovic does have a history of having parts of his game deteriorate due to a problematic combo of bad habits creeping in and niggling injuries affecting those motions. His serve and his forehand famously abandoned him for long stretches of 2009 and 2010. Back then, it was Djokovic’s two-hander that held down the fort. Today, Djokovic’s serve and forehand are back on track…but the backhand seems to be having more problems than usual. Particularly the backhand down the line mentioned above, which is allegedly Djokovic’s favorite shot, and one that is a vital part of his baseline arsenal.
It’s also the shot that tips the balance in his duels with the other members of the big 3: none of them hit that shot better than Djokovic. But as we saw today, Djokovic’s backhand down the line was mostly M.I.A.
And to think that despite this, the World No. 1 was up a break in the fifth set.
6. Looking at the stats for this match is simply fascinating. One thing pops up that is quite significant: Rafael Nadal won the return of serve battle. Here are some numbers:
- 15 more points were played on Djokovic’s serve than Nadal’s serve. An indication of how Rafael was consistently managing to get into Djokovic service games more often than the other way around.
- Nadal won 17 more return points than Djokovic (69 to 52). And the discrepancy comes from 1st serve return points won: Nadal won 13 more points returning Djokovic’s 1st serve than the Serb won returning the Spaniard’s main delivery (42 to 29). The difference with points on 2nd serve returns is much smaller: just 4 (27 to 23).
- Nadal also had 10 fewer return unforced errors. Not a small number at all.
This trend reversal is pivotal in explaining why this was a relatively lopsided 9-7-in-the-fifth match. One of the key elements in Djokovic’s arsenal against Nadal has been the ability to put Nadal through hell during most of the Spaniard’s serving games. Not so today: Nadal faced his first break point of the match in the second set. Overall, Nadal created 16 break chances (converted 8), while Djokovic created just 9 (and converted 5).
The tables were turned.
Nadal also won the consistency battle: Djokovic won only 28% of his total points via Nadal unforced errors. On the other hand, Nadal won 42% of his total points via Djokovic miscues. And Nadal finished with 7 more winners than Djokovic, which makes the UFE disparity that much more important.
Nadal also won 19 more points than Djokovic (the set-by-set breakdown is as follows: +6 for Nadal in the 1st, +5 for Djokovic in the 2nd, +16 for Nadal in the 3rd, +5 for Djokovic in the 4th, and +7 for Nadal in the 5th).
7. This match reminded me of two historic encounters for different reasons:
- I couldn’t help but remember the 2008 Wimbledon final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Of course, today’s match didn’t remind me of that famed classic because of the quality of play. Rather, what I remember most from that epic Wimbledon match was that Rafael Nadal should’ve won in straight sets. And even after getting tight in the third set (he had triple break point at 3-all), he definitely should’ve won in four sets. As it turned out, Nadal had to win that match 9-7 in the fifth.
Today was quite similar. Nadal was up a break in sets 1 through 4. In fact, he seemed well on his way to an anti-climactic straight set win once he went up a break in the second set. Djokovic’s resurgence was impressive, but Nadal wasn’t sharp enough to stem the tide. Then in set 4, as we know, Nadal served for the match at 6-5, and was up 30-15 in that game before unravelling. The only difference with the 2008 Wimbledon final was that Nadal was never down a break in that fifth set. Today he was, but still managed to win the whole thing by that identical 9-7 score.
- This seemed like a mirror-image of the 2012 Australian Open final. That match was also significantly better, but it had some interesting parallels: Djokovic seemed well on his way to a 4 set win, but lost the fourth set in a tiebreaker. What’s more, he went down a break to Nadal in the fifth, and was down 4-2. Nadal then missed a routine backhand putaway, got broken, and Djokovic won the match 7-5. Today Djokovic was up 4-3, and had what appeared to be a simple smash at net. He lost his balance, however, and ended up touching the net well before the ball he had just hit bounced on Nadal’s side of the court for a second time. Nadal’s mistake in Australia came at 30-15: a correctly executed shot would’ve given him double-game point for a 5-2 lead. Today, Djokovic’s mistake/slip came at Deuce. Had he not run into the net, he would’ve had game point for a 5-3 lead. The World No. 1 didn’t get broken on the ensuing break point, though: like Nadal in Australia, the key break came two points later.
As always, tennis is very, very weird.
8. I tweeted it at the time, and I’ll say it again: this was the strangest Djokovic-Nadal match that I’ve ever seen…and I’ve only missed one out of the 35 that are already in the books (I couldn’t watch the 2007 Wimby semifinal due to work). It was just impossible to predict. Djokovic looked done and dusted after just a set and a half, then after three sets, and then at 6-5 in the fourth. Each Houdini-like resurgence felt surreal, somehow (even though I’m well aware of Djokovic’s previous great escapes). I’m not even sure I can fully describe why it is that today’s match felt strange. I’m not sure if it was the atmosphere, or the fact that I watched it with no sound at all (I prefer most commentators, no matter how bad they are, over silence, but Johnny Mac was reaching new levels of nonsense, so muting became a necessity). I don’t know. It just felt bizarre.
9. Last week, when the news broke out that Jelena Gencic, the woman who had spotted Djokovic as an extremely promising six year-old, had passed away, I immediately knew that Novak’s French Open run wouldn’t have a happy ending. Marian Vajda, Novak’s coach, tried to do his job and squeeze some motivation out of the most unfortunate circumstance, but even as I read his thoughts about how this would probably help Djokovic keep his focus on the task at hand, it all sounded like benevolent wishful thinking.
In his next match after learning about Gencic’s passing, Djokovic struggled his way through most of a seemingly routine 4-set win against Phillipe Kohlschreiber. No problem, right?
Wrong. In a sport where so much is determined by what’s going on between the ears of the pros, receiving such a devastating blow has to take a toll. On Twitter, I compared it to an injury: it came out of nowhere, it was out of Djokovic’s control. But it’s a devastating blow, nonetheless.
Now, here’s the thing: the reason I was convinced Djokovic’s run was destined for heartbreak was because I knew Rafael Nadal would be waiting in the semis. And against a player of that caliber, at an event the Spaniard has dominated so thoroughly, you need to have your emotional tank full.
Again, Djokovic got through Kohlschreiber and then Haas without much problem. And if he had played anyone other than Nadal today, he would’ve been fine. Just as it happened in Monte Carlo last year, when Djokovic learned of his beloved grandfather’s passing, Novak pulled through all the way to the finals…where it was fairly evident that he wasn’t going to survive a focused Nadal who was hungry for revenge. The emotional tank was empty.
I also found that the idea that Djokovic would somehow win the trophy in her honor was way more problematic than it seemed, for a simple reason: it adds pressure to an already pressurized situation. Djokovic had already stated that the French Open was his main priority this year, well before Gencic passed away. By trying to “do it for her,” Djokovic might have made himself vulnerable to troublesome thoughts when things weren’t going his way. The fear of disappointing the memory of such a crucial figure in his life, a “second mother,” indeed, cannot possibly help but add tension and desperation in adversity.
And yet…Novak Djokovic was up a break in the fifth set, and two points away from a 5-3 lead in said set. So there’s that.
10. I’ve written this before, and I’ll write it again: Rafael Nadal is the greatest tennis player I’ve ever seen. Nobody competes like him. Nobody problem-solves like him. Nobody finds ways to win big matches quite like him. And that, to me, is what tennis is all about: not an aesthetic festival, but a mental and physical challenge.
I’m pretty sure we’ll see more gifted ball-strikers in the next few years. But I don’t think we’ll see such a pure competitor like him for a long, long time. So, enjoy him while you can.
— Ella Ling (@EllaLing23) June 7, 2013