Thursday, February 2, 2012

Warrior Tennis

by Conroy

Djokovic and Nadal weary after nearly six hours of play
Have we seen the limit of tennis? I mean, really, can the sport get any better? Much has already been written, deservedly, about the remarkable Australian Open final, won this past Sunday [1] by Novak Djokovic over Rafael Nadal; a nearly six hour match – six hours! – of energy-sapping intensity and dramatic competitive swings. This is just the latest, perhaps the ultimate culmination, in what is surely one of the glory times for the sport. We fans must count ourselves lucky that we get to watch three of the greatest players of all time – and yes, Djokovic has now entered that discussion – battle in so many riveting matches on tennis’ biggest stages.

One startling statistic communicates the hegemony that Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and now Novak Djokovic have established over tennis: Since the 2005 French Open – the last seven years – they have won 27 of 28 grand slam tournaments [2]. These three have and continue to demonstrate how far the bounds of excellence can be pushed. But along with the brilliance and athleticism come the compelling narratives that leave commentators (including this writer) searching for appropriate descriptions.

Tennis is often compared to other sports. Boxing is a favorite of the TV analyst types as players are described as landing “body blows” or going for the “knockout”, or engaged in a “heavyweight struggle.” This analogy seems fitting given the lonely one-on-one nature of tennis and more so as the sport has gotten more physical. Tennis is also compared to a mental struggle, a kind of hyper-kinetic chess, or as an ultimate test of men, a gladiator’s duel. Loftier still are comparisons of today’s top players to Greek mythical heroes, meeting in dramatic epical battles [3]. The fact that tennis matches are commonly compared to wars and battles [4] is a further expression of this perception. There may be hints of truth in these comparisons, but I think they miss something essential, something that can only be understood by examining the dominance and defeat of each man.

The Rise of Roger Federer
There will never be a perfect player, but by the end of 2003 the 22-year-old Roger Federer had become what many believed to be the next closest thing. Watching Federer in his prime, as David Foster Wallace famously wrote [5], was a religious experience. He was at once fast, graceful, and powerful. But these words don’t do him justice. He was more like the full embodiment of speed and grace and power. His shot-making was beautiful and brutally effective. His intelligence was obvious from how he constructed points, to the shots he chose to play, to his uncanny ability to anticipate and read opponents. He was a virtuoso; he owned every shot in the book and used them in ways no one had seen before. I’ll give you one of my favorite examples from the middle of the tense fifth set of the 2007 Wimbledon Final against Nadal.

Federer leads three games to two and is ahead in Nadal’s service game 0-15. Nadal, a lefty, hits a serve to Federer’s backhand, like he almost always does in the ad (left side) court, and Federer slices a short return into the middle of the court, forcing Nadal to come into the net. Nadal hits a forehand with heavy topspin deep into Federer’s backhand corner and follows this shot even closer to the net. Federer flicks a backhand to Nadal’s backhand side but above the Spaniard’s head. Nadal hits the only real shot available, a backhand crosscourt volley, and it’s good, bouncing low. But Federer has anticipated the shot and sprints along his baseline picking up the low ball and beating Nadal with a perfectly measured forehand pass. Now it’s 0-30 and Nadal again hits a serve to Federer’s backhand, up the “T” (middle) in the deuce (right side) court. Federer hits a neutral backhand return back down the center of the court to Nadal, who then hits a hard forehand to Federer’s forehand side. Nadal is anticipating a crosscourt forehand and has moved a couple of steps to his right. But instead Federer drills a deep, heavily top-spinned forehand into Nadal’s forehand corner. The ball is so well struck and such a surprise that even at a full gallop and stretch Nadal can’t reach it and it goes past him for another winner. Two points later and it’s 15-40. Nadal hits a body serve that Federer fights off with a floating forehand to Nadal’s backhand side. Nadal backs-up and hits a hard forehand deep the Federer’s backhand. Federer hits a hard backhand right back to Nadal who hits a backhand down the left (his right) sideline. Federer quickly scampers to the ball and hits a lofted backhand back toward Nadal but deep, just inside Nadal’s baseline. Nadal is forced to retreat and hits a neutral forehand to Federer’s forehand, where Federer, still on his backhand side of the court, hits a hard forehand near the left (Nadal’s right) sideline. This shot foreces Nadal to hit a crosscourt backhand which Federer anticipates and moves quickly to his right across to the deuce side of the court, easily tracking it down and responding with a crosscourt forehand. Nadal hits a hard backhand into the center of the court that Federer counters with a hard low slice backhand that barely clears the net and forces Nadal to scramble just to get to the ball. He’s forced to hit a short crosscourt forehand. Federer literally skips to his left and near his left sideline strikes a gorgeous forehand smack onto the left sideline past Nadal for a winner and the decisive break. These few critical points show Federer’s variety, intelligence, and wicked shot-making.

I can go on and on lauding his, well, magnificence, but seeing the real thing is better than reading about it, so check out these highlights. His game had (and still has) a genius, an originality and style and potency that can make you shout out loud in amazement while watching alone from your living room. I’ve noted his feats in previous posts, but from the end of 2003 through the end of 2007 he won 11 grand slams (of 16 played), won over 93% of his matches, and beat the other top players not named Nadal like a drum going 69-2 against Top 10 opponents – all feats unparalleled in tennis history. But if Federer was a tennis Superman there was definitely a kryptonite.

The Rise of Rafael Nadal
Federer made an interesting comment during the on-court interview following his 2007 Wimbledon win, stating that he was glad he won this match before Nadal won them all. In the moment it was probably intended as a compliment and as admittance that the match was a close-run thing. Indeed it was, and Federer’s remarks proved prescient, he hasn’t beaten Nadal in a grand slam match since (0-5).

Not long after Federer began dominating tennis there came the meteoric rise of Rafael Nadal, a tennis phenom. Here was the rare player who rose to the upper echelon of the game as a teenager, winning his first grand slam, the 2005 French Open, just after his 19th birthday; the first teen to do so since a 19-year-old Pete Sampras won the 1990 U.S. Open. His game was distinguished by its pure physicality. Nadal was blurry fast, he could run forever without tiring, his forehand was hit with tremendous power and an unprecedented amount of topspin. He was also metronomic-ally consistent hitting that forehand, and his strong two-handed backhand, shot after shot until, seemingly inevitably, his opponents made an error or grew impatient and forced (and missed) a risky shot. Add to that an unmatched competitive focus and determination – Nadal never takes a point off and never puts less than full effort into every exchange. This combination of skills and focus made him virtually unbeatable on clay where he set a never-to-be-beaten record of 81 consecutive match wins between 2005 and 2007. He beat Roger Federer in the French Open each year from 2005 through 2008, the last three in the final. The 2006 and 2007 final loses were Federer’s only defeats at a grand slam in those years. Why did Nadal give Federer, the perfect player, such trouble?

Pundits are quick to point to psychology. Nadal is in Federer’s head and the Swiss just doesn’t play his best against the relentless physical game of the Spaniard. That thinking is only half right. The truth is, and after 27 matches [6] is pretty well established, that Nadal’s game gives Federer trouble because of how their games match-up. Nadal is left-handed and he naturally hits his forehand to Federer’s (relatively) weaker backhand side. His high-bouncing heavy-topspin shots bounce high to Federer’s one-handed backhand. And eventually, shot-after-shot and rally-after-rally, Nadal will win more of those points than he loses. Then there is Nadal’s ability to slice his serves to Federer’s backhand which allows him to earn cheap points or gain a winning position in rallies. Finally, his tremendous speed requires Federer to hit extra shots, which often forces errors.

Here’s a characteristic Nadal-Federer point from the 2008 French Open final [7]. It is early in the third set, Nadal easily won the first two, and is already up a break and serving 40-30 to take a 2-0 lead. He slices a serve out wide to Federer’s backhand that Federer is forced to strike above his shoulder. He actually hits a pretty good backhand near Nadal’s forehand corner, but Nadal responds with another heavy topspin shot back to the same spot as his serve. Federer again is forced to hit a backhand above his shoulder and it falls short in the middle of the court. Nadal pounces on it and hits yet another heavy forehand into Federer’s backhand corner. Federer hits a backhand into the center of the court and Nadal, now on top of the baseline and seeing Federer camped deep behind his own backhand side hits a hard inside-out forehand for an easy winner. Game, set, and match. Imagine that scenario played over and over and you’ll understand why Nadal boasts a 12-2 record against Federer on clay, including five wins against no losses in the French Open.

But Nadal rose from nuisance to nemesis when he adapted his game to surfaces other than clay. The 2007 Wimbledon final put Federer on notice that beating Nadal anywhere at any time was going to be a challenge. Nadal put tremendous effort into becoming a genuine all-around player and that effort, manifested in a stronger serve, different court positioning, improved volleying, and generally more aggressive play bore fruit at the 2008 Wimbledon final; a true changing of the guard moment. In what was the best match many people (including this writer) had ever witnessed [8], Nadal and Federer battled for nearly five hours and through multiple rain delays. Nadal won the first two sets, Federer the next two, including saving two match points in the fourth set tie-breaker, before Nadal finally triumphed in deep twilight 9-7 in the fifth. Federer was no longer the best. He would go on to win four more grand slams (and counting?) after that loss [9], but he would lose to Nadal in the 2009 Australian Open final, the 2011 French Open final, and just last week in a riveting, but in the end unsurprising Australian Open semi-final.

Federer’s accomplishments cast him as the best player of all time. But against Nadal he is second-best. So does that mean Nadal’s athleticism beats Federer’s shot-making; that Nadal’s stubborn style overwhelms Federer’s variety; that Nadal’s competiveness and focus triumph over Federer’s brilliance? In this match-up, the answer to these questions is more often than not, yes. And that fact is distressing to many Federer fans who are anguished that physicality and will can beat genius [10]. But at this top level, with players separated by very little, the fact that Nadal has a reliable, exploitable advantage over his opponent gives him the edge. Federer clearly hates losing, and especially in big moments to Nadal, but he understands that Nadal’s game is a bad match for his own.

After Nadal had brushed past Federer into the No. 1 spot for the second time in 2010, he won three grand slams in a row and appeared on his way to a long run at the top of the rankings and with a reasonable chance to challenge Federer’s all-time grand slam record. He beat Novak Djokovic to win the 2010 U.S. Open, and the Serb seemed as impotent as everyone else against Nadal. But sport is cyclical, and 2011 changed everything.

The Rise of Novak Djokovic
For a long time it seemed that Novak Djokovic was born under an unlucky star (assuming of course that a famous, rich, and successful athlete can ever be considered unlucky). He was forced to compete against Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Despite obvious physical gifts and a fantastic, complete, all-around game, he seemed stuck as the third wheel, finishing behind the top pair for four straight years (2007-10). But starting in late 2010 he made some adjustments. He grew fitter [11] and fixed a few lingering flaws in his game. He also seemed to be imbued with new confidence and desire. As I wrote last spring, he convinced himself that he could compete with the top two.

Perhaps the “new” Novak Djokovic was most obviously on display in the final of the prestigious Miami tournament last April. Against Nadal, a man who had won every big match they had ever played until the previous tournament two weeks earlier in Indian Wells, he fought back through the heat and humidity to take the match to a third (final) set tie-breaker. By all expectations, Nadal, the big-match player, the paragon of fitness and will, would triumph. It didn’t happen. Djokovic won, the second of seven consecutive victories (and counting) over Nadal. The best illustration of their new reality occurred late in the tie-breaker.

Djokovic leads 5 points to 2, two points from victory. Nadal slices a serve to Djokovic’s backhand, but that’s a strength of the Serb, as is his return in general, and he hits a strong, deep, low return that Nadal is forced to slice with his backhand crosscourt. Djokovic hits an angled forehand to Nadal’s backhand side, to which Nadal can only hit a crosscourt backhand to Djokovic’s forehand. Djokovic hits an even more angled forehand to Nadal’s backhand, and Nadal must reach far into his backhand corner to hit yet another backhand to Djokovic’s forehand.  Now with Nadal deep in his backhand corner, Djokovic changes the pattern and hits a forehand down the left (his right) sideline for a clean, easy winner. After the point Nadal was hunched over, he looked on the verge of being physically sick. Djokovic had out-played and out-fitnessed Nadal.

Djokovic has won the last seven matches with Nadal and 10 of 12 going back to the middle of 2009. Why does he prosper against the Spaniard when everyone else seems to struggle? Once again, the answer lies in the match-up. Nadal’s biggest strength is his heavy top spin forehand to a right-hander’s backhand. Djokovic is untroubled by this shot because his two-handed backhand is the best in the game and he can use it as a weapon against anyone. Nadal’s lefty slice serve is hard on right-handers, but Djokovic is the best returner in the world – something Nadal seemed awed by in his recent post-final press conference – and can constantly put pressure on his opponents. Nadal plays amazing defense and can run more shots down then most opponents. Djokovic is even faster than Nadal and can run just as many balls down, but from better positions on the court, which allows him to more easily turn defense into offense. Nadal’s fitness is intimidating and he can wear down most other opponents. Djokovic, as demonstrated in Miami and again in the Australian Open final, is fitter than even Nadal. Djokovic has small but discernable advantages over Nadal. It’s a good match-up for him.  

The Next Battle
Nadal’s relative mastery of Federer doesn’t undermine the legacy that Federer has built over the last nine years, and Djokovic’s recent mastery of Nadal doesn’t change the fact that the Spaniard is one of the ten best (at least) players of all time. Some commentators have questioned how Federer can be considered the best of all time when he can’t beat his main rival, but now, the same question can be extended to Nadal. At this moment Djokovic appears unbeatable. Who might come along to master Djokovic? When Federer and Djokovic play it’s a 50/50 proposition. That’s because Federer’s game matches-up with Djokovic’s game better than Nadal’s does. We fans talk about battling and warriors and the deep psychological drama that plays out in the trio’s matches, but really that’s just window dressing, inflated ideas grafted onto what are really just interesting athletic match-ups.

Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic are each winners and champions, they are the best of the best, and they play to win. In every match between them we see inimical shot-making, tense points, often dramatic swings. And over the course of three or four or five sets we see the player with the tiny advantage usually walk away the winner. Their matches mostly boil down to tennis, to who played better. Not to abstract mental, or emotional, or psychological causes. And when the loser steps off the court they aren’t vanquished warriors, or fallen heroes. Their matches aren’t life or death and their flaws aren’t those of Greek tragedies. They’re just disappointed competitors. That’s why the players themselves seem so confused by questions the veer away from the athletic competition itself.

We fans are free to describe tennis matches however we want, but obsessing over the winners and losers, why one players seems to always win and another to lose, and especially as we look for deeper symbolism far removed from men playing a game, we risk missing the larger reality of this time: Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic have raised tennis to its highest expression. Some matches, like the 2008 Wimbledon final or this year’s Australian Open final, are so amazing that who won seems like a technicality.

At five games all in the fifth set of the Australian Open final, the match still very much in the balance, I turned to my girlfriend and said in a mix of excitement and exhaustion that I didn’t know how many more of these matches [12] I could take. Whatever else is said, these men are delivering to tennis fans everything we could ever ask for. When and where will the next warrior tennis be played?



[1] Technically Monday, since the Sunday evening match finished well after 1:30 AM on Monday morning, Melbourne time.

[2] The lone other winner was Juan Martin Del Potro who defeated Roger Federer to win the 2009 U.S. Open. It took him five sets and remains for Federer the one grand slam final that he admits he let slip away (although all credit to Del Potro, he played a great match).

[3] Brian Philips did just this in a good post-Australian Open final article (linked above), comparing the top men to the tragic warriors from the Illiad.

[4] I used just this symbolism in the first paragraph.

[5] This essay from just after the 2006 Wimbledon Final is perhaps the best piece of tennis writing anyone will ever write (linked above).

[6] Nadal has won 18 of their 27 matches and 8 of 10 grand slam matches, including twice at the Australian Open and once at Wimbledon.

[7] Where Nadal annihilated Federer 6-1, 6-3, 6-0.

[8] Now rivaled for general drama and competitive sprit by the 2012 Australian Open final.

[9] And regain the No. 1 ranking in 2009.

[10] Including this writer.

[11] Much has been noted about his gluten free diet, but over the last years he has seemed has shown both greater strength and stamina, which hints at more than just changes to what he has been eating.

[12] Both men’s semi-finals were long, intense, dramatic matches as well.

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