Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Perfect Man for the Job

For four years, from 2007-10, Novak Djokovic finished the year as the #3-ranked player in the world. The would-be prince of men's tennis was the "third man" in a two-man game, looking in on an exceedingly exclusive club from a vantage point that was close, yet so far away, wondering if the game's kings would ever deign to allow him to sit at their table.

But those days are gone. Now, the Serb is the one calling the shots and the deposed former rulers of the sport can only gaze upon HIM from afar, muttering to themselves that "he can't possibly be this good for much longer." Yep, the shoe is now most definitely on the other foot... err, feet.

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal didn't know the sort of monster they were unwittingly helping to create.

"You can't compare me to my father. Our similarities are different." - Dale Berra, on his father Yogi

They say necessity is the motherhood of invention, and the height of The Great Wall built between Federer/Nadal and the rest of the men's field over most of the past decade surely called for no stone to go unturned if anyone was truly serious about scaling the monstrous edifice. Andy Murray didn't have the equipment to mount the offensive, while Andy Roddick's best days were behind him, making any concerted effort on his part impossible. Juan Martin del Potro reached the top of The Wall, only to tumble back down its side and be forced to begin his climb once again from Point A. For years, no man seemed up to the challenge. But, as it's turned out, the person closest to the barrier -- Djokovic -- was the perfect man for the job.

A man with a childhood shaped and uprooted by war, whose discovery of and love for a sport changed both his and his family's life, was hardly the sort to give up after seeing his climbing efforts thwarted time and time again. Over the course of 2011, the work that Djokovic has put in to improve each and every aspect of his game, both on court and off, has become more and more apparent. His forehand is bigger, and his serve more stable (no more routinely having more double-faults than aces for him). A great defensive player blessed with supreme quickness during his career, he's improved his stamina (and overall confidence) by improving his fitness via his (now almost humorously "cliched") gluten-free diet, allowing him to go into a potentially long match knowing that he needn't change his approach in order to play quicker points so he'll be physically up to finishing in the end. As a result, he can do battle with the likes of a grinding Nadal in a series of pounding, 25-shot rallies and get the best of the Spaniard as many -- or more -- times as his opponent gets the best of him. Already blessed with a remarkable return of service, this season he's found ways to break down opponents' serves in a way that have allowed him to put forth his most stunning stuff in the most crucial moments of matches (see vs. Federer's serve, down 2 MP in the Open SF). With few exceptions, Djokovic has been at his best when the points have meant the most.

Physically, Djokovic doesn't appear to be an overwhelmingly imposing figure. But with the improvement in literally every area of his game all coming together at the same time, the sum of Djokovic's parts have come to equal something pretty awesome. So much so that even Nadal can't fully believe that the Serb is going to be able to defend his newly-won kingdom as well or for as long as he and Federer did. Maybe Rafa's subtle questions about Djokovic's staying power at #1 will prove to be prescient. But, in the final of this year's U.S. Open, the future was NOW, as Djokovic's many skills culminated in a magnificent match that only served to prove that the Serb is the best tennis player on the planet.

The match wasn't "the greatest match ever played." Rafa had won that one a few years ago. It wasn't even a five-setter. But Djokovic/Nadal was one of the best-played slam finals you'll ever see. On a point-by-point basis, no inch was given. Everything had to be taken. One potential shift in momentum in the action was almost always immediately met by a turn back in the other direction. Even big leads (mostly by Djokovic) were built upon the labor of a series of sustained, bludgeoning groundstroke-filled, defensively-astounding rallies that lasted 20-30 strokes that could have gone in the favorable stat column of either player... until one finally outlasted the other. Personally, I don't think I've ever seen a big match that had more of those sorts of rallies than this one. During CBS's coverage of the final, Mary Carillo joked that the action was, "Just one big salute to physical fitness."

Most of those rallies were ultimately won by Djokovic, as he beat Nadal at his own game, one which got Rafa to #1 in the world and with which he won ten slam titles. A year ago, Nadal, who had focused his entire summer on winning the Open (even talking about his ultimate goal minutes after winning Wimbledon) was a serving machine in Flushing Meadows. His serve was broken just three times the entire tournament en route to the title. In this tournament, Nadal wasn't nearly the unstoppable force he was a year ago, but he improved in every match. In Monday's final, though, Djokovic broke his serve three times... in the 1st set. In the match, he managed to break the Spaniard eleven times. Yet, still, Nadal was legitimately fighting with a belief that he could defend his title into the 4th set.

In the first two sets, Nadal jumped to early 2-0 leads. But, both times, Djokovic immediately broke back one game after Rafa had managed to break HIS serve. In the 1st, the Serb won six games in a row to take the set. In the 2nd, on his sixth break point attempt, he broke Nadal in an eight-deuce, 17:15 game filled with the long, punishing, high-quality rallies that marked the match. Djokovic led the set 4-2, and very nearly 5-2, before Nadal stopped the momentum to hold for 4-3, then break for 4-4. But, again, Djokovic broke back immediately, then served out the stanza at 6-4 for a two-set to none lead.

"You have to give 100% in the first half of the game. If that isn't enough, in the second half, you have to give what is left." - Yogi Berra

In the 3rd set, Djokovic grabbed a quick break for a 2-1 lead, only to see Nadal break him to get back on serve one game later. But, again, for the fourth straight time, Djokovic got the break back immediately to get back on top at 3-2. The momentum shifts weren't over, though. After the Serb began Game #6 with a double-fault and fell down love/40 while seeming to be having issues with his back, Nadal broke again to knot the score at 3-3, then finally broke the break-back string by holding for 4-3. With Djokovic serving again, Nadal held another break point, but Djokovic held in a game highlighted by his claiming of a 31-point rally in which Nadal dragged him from side-to-side in the backcourt, only to see the Serb scramble to get every ball back, then punctuate his efforts by smacking a winner down the line. After the point, as he'd done when his huge crosscourt forehand return winner had saved the first of two match points against Federer in the semifinals, Djokovic turned to the crowd with open arms, pleading for a little appreciation for the effort. Once again, he got it. When he served wide, inducing a Nadal forehand error, he officially got the game, too, to knot things at 4-4. Two games later, Nadal smacked his racket with his fist after missing on a wide forehand that would have given him two break points. Djokovic held for 5-5, and the set eventually went to a tie-break. Nadal, as he'd done in the first two games in the previous sets, won the first two points to take a 2-0 lead in the TB. This time, he held on, winning 7-3 and seeming to have turned the match momentum in his favor.

During the changeover, Djokovic had a trainer briefly look at his back, then went out and held serve to start the 4th. He then immediately went to his chair for a medical timeout 3:40 into the match. After a full session while stretched out on his stomach on the court, with the trainer working on his back after the Serb had downed a few pain pills, Djokovic returned to the court and quickly got into another long tussle with Nadal. Was the timing of the medical timeout a bit of gamesmanship, coming just when he'd taken a slight advantage in the set after having lost the momentum of the match in the previous one? At the very least, it forced Nadal to wait to serve, slowed him down and quieted the hopped-up crowd hoping for a five-setter. In the first game after the timeout, Djokovic broke Nadal on his fifth break chance in the game to go up 2-0. He then held for 3-0. It was a lead that Nadal couldn't come back from. Djokovic broke him at love for a 5-1 lead, then closed out the match with a forehand winner one game later. Final score: Djokovic 6-2/6-4/6-7/6-1, in a hearty 4:10, as he claimed his third slam of 2011.

This time, though, Djokovic didn't have to "dance for his supper." In fact, he didn't need to dance at all. Clad in a cap emblazoned with FDNY, one day after the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and dressed in red, white and blue (sure, those are Serbia's colors, as well as the U.S.'s, but the symbolism surely wasn't lost on either him or the crowd), he was finally able to bask in the champion's spotlight in New York City just a few years after he'd first "broken through" the consciousness of American sporting fans with his on-court impressions of the game's greats, and then felt a bit of the crowd's ire when he'd dared to return (slightly) cross words from afar with the top American player at the time, Roddick. In 2011, though, more secure in his position both in and outside the game, Djokovic proved to be a natural at being the center of attention for all the right and pure reasons.

Thus, Djokovic's astounding season continues. At 64-2, he's still in line for the "best" (winning percentage-wise) season in ATP history. He's 9-1 combined against Federer and Nadal, including a undefeated 6-0 mark against Nadal in finals contested on all surfaces. Ah, what the dominance of the two "former Kings" has wrought. Even as the #3 player at the end of '10, the Serb needed to improve at least a bit in every area in order to move past BOTH Nadal and Federer. Against all odds, he's managed to do just that. As we've seen on the hard courts this season, Djokovic's road to the top is becoming more and more physically wearing. And the season is still months from being over. Because of his success in 2011, come 2012, it'll likely be even more difficult for him to maintain such an edge on the field.

Once again after a slam final on Monday, Nadal sent a not-entirely-veiled message to Djokovic about the future, and how tough it'll be for him to live up to what he's done this season. After losing the Wimbledon final to the Serb, the Spaniard admitted that Djokovic was the best player in the world, but threw in the "at the moment" phrase at the tail end of the praise. After the Open, he noted how Djokovic's near-perfect season would likely be "impossible to repeat." Both, technically, were true statements, and maybe Nadal wasn't trying to get into Djokovic's head as he's admitted that Djokovic has sort of gotten into his. But after years of watching Federer's subtle messages about the true hierarchy in the men's game, one can't help think that Nadal has learned something from his friendly rival when it comes to maintaining his own aura, while warning everyone about getting ahead of themselves about another player's ability to be dominant over the long-term, even after a loss (or six) against said player.

While the last nine months haven't allowed Djokovic, in historical terms, to race past the two men who've been involved in the "Greatest of All Time" discussion the last few years, in 2011, the sum of HIS parts equal up to the sum of BOTH their's. Combined. Maybe in a few months, he'll go down as the best there's ever been in a single year. But even if that doesn't happen, it won't matter.

Djokovic is the best there IS. Today. And, right now, that's all that really matters.

...this slam is the seventh straight won by either Djokovic or Nadal, the second-longest such two-headed streak in ATP history. The longest? Eleven in a row... perpetrated by Nadal and Roger Federer from 2005-07.

Combined, the Djokovic/Nadal/Federer trio has now won 26 of the last 27 slam titles. At 64-2 for the season, Djokovic is currently sporting a season win percentage of .9697, slightly ahead of the men's all-time best mark of .9647 by John McEnroe (82-3) in 1984.

TASHKENT, UZBEKISTAN (Int'l $220K/hard outdoor)
10 Final: Kudryavtseva d. Vesnina
11 Top Seeds: Pervak/Jovanovski
10 Doubles Champions: Panova/Poutchek (Poutchek 2009-10)

#1 Pervak d. Amanmuradova
#4 Sevastova d. #6 Kudryavtseva
#1 Pervak d. #4 Sevastova

QUEBEC CITY, QUEBEC CAN (Int'l $220K/carpet indoor)
10 Finals: Paszek d. Mattek-Sands
11 Top Seeds: Hantuchova/Safarova
10 Doubles Champions: Arvidsson/Larrson

#3 Paszek d. #7 Falconi
#2 Safarova d. Krajicek
#2 Safarova d. #3 Paszek

...the new WTA rankings yield some big changes. A few: even with her early exit in Queens, Maria Sharapova jumps all the way to #2, while '10 Open champ Kim Clijsters falls to #9. Victoria Azarenka is #3, Vera Zvonareva #4, and new U.S. champ Sam Stosur is up to #7. Meanwhile, Serena Williams goes from #27 to #14.

In Doubles, Open champ Liezel Huber has re-claimed the #1 ranking from Kveta Peschke and Katarina Srebotnik. Partner Lisa Raymond, who first reached the doubles top ranking back in 2000, is up to #6.

In a bit of good news/bad news, Sania Mirza is up to #10 in the doubles rankings, and is part of the fourth-ranked team in the 2011 Doubles race (giving her and Elena Vesnina a shot to qualify for the WTA Championships field), but, apparently, her recent knee injury may lead her to miss the rest of the season.

...the "ITF Player of the Week" is Romania's Alexandra Cadantu, who won the $100K challenger in Biella, Italy. Cadantu defeated Yvonne Meusburger, Sessil Karatantcheva and Laura Pous-Tio before taking out Mariana Duque-Marino in the final. One other result of note in this event was Duque-Marino's win over Kaia Kanepi in the SF. A year ago at this time, Kanepi was coming off a QF result at the U.S. Open, her second straight slam QF result of the 2010 season.

Elsewhere, Stosur's NYC good vibes seems to have carried over to her fellow Australians, as both Olivia Rogowska and Johanna Konta also won challenger events this weekend.

#9 Samantha Stosur/AUS def. #28 Serena Williams/USA 6-2/6-3

#1 Novak Djokovic/SRB def. #2 Rafael Nadal/ESP 6-2/6-4/6-7/6-1

#4 Huber/Raymond (USA/USA) def. #3 King/Shvedova (USA/KAZ) 4-6/7-6/7-6

#9 Melzer/Petzschner (AUT/GER) def. #6 Fyrstenberg (POL/POL) 6-2/6-2

(WC) Oudin/Sock (USA/USA) def. #8 Dulko/Schwank (ARG/ARG) 7-6/4-6/10-8

Grace Min/USA def. #1 Caroline Garcia/FRA 7-5/7-6

#13 Oliver Golding/GBR def. #1 Jiri Vesely/CZE 5-7/6-3/6-4

#6 Khromacheva/Schuurs (RUS/NED) def. (WC) Andrews/Townsend (USA/USA) 6-4/5-7 [10-5]

Kern/Lenz (GER/GER) def. Dubarenco/Manfov (MDA/UKR) 7-5/76-4

1933 - Jack Crawford
1934 - Fred Perry
1955 - Tony Trabert
1956 - Lew Hoad
1958 - Ashley Cooper
1964 - Roy Emerson
1974 - Jimmy Connors
1988 - Mats Wilander
2004 - Roger Federer
2006 - Roger Federer
2007 - Roger Federer
2010 - Rafael Nadal
2011 - Novak Djokovic

18...Bob Bryan
16...Roger Federer
14...Leander Paes
13...Mike Bryan
11...Mahesh Bhupathi
10...Rafael Nadal
8...Max Mirnyi
8...Daniel Nestor
7...Nenad Zimonjic

23...Roger Federer (16-7)
14...RAFAEL NADAL (10-4)
5...Andy Roddick (1-4)

20 - Ivan Lendl vs. John McEnroe
19 - Roger Federer .vs Rafael Nadal
16 - Andre Agassi vs. Pete Sampras
16 - Boris Becker vs. Stefan Edberg
15 - Jimmy Connors vs. John McEnroe
13 - Boris Becker vs. Ivan Lendl
12 - Bjorn Borg vs. Jimmy Connors
11 - Novak Djokovic & Rafael Nadal

8 - Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal
5 - Andre Agassi vs. Pete Sampras
5 - Ivan Lendl vs. Mats Wilander
4 - Bjorn Borg vs. Jimmy Connors
4 - Bjorn Borg vs. John McEnroe
4 - Roger Federer vs. Andy Roddick
3 - Novak Djokovic vs. Rafael Nadal

11 - Roger Federer (8) & Rafael Nadal (3), 2005-07
7 - Rafael Nadal (4) & Novak Djokovic (3), 2010-11
6 - Pete Sampras (4) & Sergi Bruguera (2), 1993-94
5 - Jimmy Connors (3) & Bjorn Borg (2), 1974-75

TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): #28 Serena Williams/USA
TOP MIDDLE-ROUND (3r-QF): #9 Samantha Stosur/AUS
TOP LATE ROUND (SF-F): #9 Samantha Stosur/AUS
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q3: Alexandra Panova/RUS def. #6q Andrea Hlavackova/CZE 3-6/6-2/7-6(7)
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): 2nd Rd. - Irina Falconi/USA d. #14 Dominika Cibulkova/SVK 2-6/6-3/7-5
TOP MIDDLE-RD. MATCH (3r-QF): 3rd Rd. - #9 Samantha Stosur/AUS d. #24 Nadia Petrova/RUS 7-6/6-7/7-5
TOP LATE RD. MATCH (SF-F/Jr.): #4 Huber/Raymond (USA/USA) d. #3 King/Shvedova (USA/KAZ) 4-6/7-6/7-6
TOP ASHE NIGHT MATCH: 4th Rd. - #1 Caroline Wozniacki/DEN d. #15 Svetlana Kuznetsova/RUS 6-7/7-5/6-1
FIRST WINNER: Monica Niculescu/ROU (def. Patricia Mayr-Achleitner/AUT)
FIRST SEED OUT: #5 Petra Kvitova (lost to Dulgheru/1st Rd.)
NATION OF POOR SOULS: Czech Republic (2-5 in 1st Rd., Cetkovska walkover in 2nd)
LAST QUALIFIER STANDING: Silvia Soler-Espinosa/ESP (3rd Rd)
LAST WILD CARD STANDING: Sloane Stephens/USA (3rd Rd)
IT: Esther Vergeer/NED (wheelchair champ / 426 straight wins)
MS. OPPORTUNITY: Angelique Kerber/GER
COMEBACK PLAYERS: Liezel Huber & Lisa Raymond, USA/USA
CRASH & BURN: Wimbledon champ, #5 Petra Kvitova/CZE (1st Rd./lost to Dulgheru) & Roland Garros champ, #6 Li Na/CHN (1st Rd./lost to Halep)
ZOMBIE QUEEN: Flavia Pennetta/ITA - sick and nearly throwing up on court late in the 2nd set, overcomes 0-5 hole and saves 4 MP in tie-break vs. Peng Shuai/CHN to escape with straight sets 4th Round win
LADY OF THE EVENING: Samantha Stosur/AUS (two dramatic night wins, neither on Ashe Stadium court)
BROADWAY-BOUND: Francesca Schiavone/ITA (for combined '11 slam dramatic performances)

All for now. 3Q Awards next.


Blogger Diane said...

I didn't think Djokovic could keep it going through the U.S. Open. This run is simply amazing. To watch him return like that against Nadal! When he won his first Australian Open, I didn't think it would be his only major, but I certainly wasn't expecting anything like this.

Unfortunately, the whole gluten-free craze is filled with misinformation (imagine that--from the news media). Djokovic has the non-Celiac's version of the allergy; he isn't eating this way to get fit, but--as you point out--to keep from being unfit. His allergy explains the many physical problems he had earlier in his career. Once he got it under control, he must have felt like a brand new version of himself.

Tue Sep 13, 09:48:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Well, like someone once said, "90% of this game is half mental." :)

Wed Sep 14, 02:44:00 PM EDT  

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