Novak Djokovic’s big win on Monday in Madrid over Kei Nishikori illustrates a simple truth about tennis.
Weeks ago, I wrote about the need for tennis to resist the implementation of a serve clock. Tennis and baseball are my two favorite sports — both poorly operated by executives and leaders, but both the most sublime pleasures to take in as an observer. The chief reason? They don’t have visible clocks governing the flow of action. These are both pace-of-play sports in which flow is desirable, but not to the point that a clock distracts either the athletes or the audience.
It is liberating in a hectic, fast-paced era of human history to know that a competition is not centrally governed by time. This doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy a good basketball or American football game — I do — but I especially appreciate the reality that in tennis and baseball, the length of the event depends primarily upon the amount of opportunities the players do (or don’t) create for themselves. Tennis and baseball are, in that sense, supremely meritocratic sports. Basketball, football and hockey are meritocratic, but tennis and baseball slightly eclipse them in this context.
What tennis and baseball also share — in expanding the scope of this examination — is the specific emphasis not on production or quality itself, but on producing in a timely manner.
It is not as though tennis doesn’t reward volume or quantity of production. Chances are if a player hits 40 winners in a two-set match, or 60 in a three-set match, s/he will win. Nevertheless, tennis and baseball are less tethered to the accumulation of volume than their timed-sport cousins. If a basketball team makes 10 more 3-pointers than the opponent in a game and is reasonably efficient in attaining that 30-point advantage, it will very rarely lose. American football teams which gain 250 more yards than their opponents and don’t commit more turnovers or penalties will similarly find it hard to lose.
Tennis and baseball aren’t governed by volume — accumulation of bulk stats — to the same extent other sports are. Winning tennis players can sometimes win fewer points in a match. Winning baseball teams often (enough) collect fewer base hits than the opposition. In baseball, a team can produce three great at-bats in an inning — two singles accompanied by a walk to load the bases — but if a hitter then strikes out, pops up, or hits into a double play with the bases loaded, no runs will score. Collecting two or three hits means nothing without scoring runs. The timely hit — the one which produces runs — is the centerpiece of winning baseball. The sport is untimed, but paradoxically, that reality magnifies the importance of being good at specific MOMENTS in time.
So it also is in tennis, and Djokovic reminded us of that basic truth against Nishikori.
Especially in the first set but also in the second, this match involved a lot of 30-30 and deuce games. These two world-class returners with inconsistent serves (Nishikori’s being structurally weak in any time or season, Djokovic’s serve being inconsistent due to first-match rust in Madrid) figured to engage in a lot of complicated games, and they did. This was also a match which, due to the pressure involved plus the natural rough edges one should expect from a first match at a tournament with unique conditions (Madrid’s altitude and comparatively odd clay compared to more “normal” clay surfaces in Rome and Paris), was always likely to be a struggle. It was, particularly in the first set.
The player who made the more timely interventions was going to win. The player who lost focus for brief moments in delicate scoreboard situations was going to lose.
Nishikori, up a break at *3-2 in the first set, double faulted to hand over the break. He had a break point at 3-3, 30-40, and sent a second serve return well wide.
From that moment on, Djokovic was the boss of the court and the match. A champion’s muscle memory kicked in, while his challenger — unable to pounce on a sluggish start from the Serbian — couldn’t change the longstanding narrative attached to this ATP matchup: When the pressure reaches its height, Djokovic rises and Nishikori falls.
Djokovic closed down the first set with an authoritative return game. He boldly stepped through a portal to announce his superiority after being tied at 5-all.
Given that course of events in set one, every logical instinct suggested that the second set would unfold along similar lines. Logic did not disappoint anyone who watched this match… except for Nishikori fans.
Djokovic cleaned up his game in the second set, and he unleashed his best and most formidable array of groundstrokes to once again break Nishikori when the Japanese star was serving to take a set into a tiebreaker. Djokovic understandably needed time to settle into this match, and Nishikori gave him some help midway through the first set, but once Nole survived that 3-3 service game in the opening stanza, he looked like the player who was much more in charge of the match, the man who was owning the court and carrying himself like the champion he is.
Novak Djokovic made the timely shots on Monday in Madrid. His muscle memory isn’t all the way back — you will know what that looks like when you see it — but it is still very strong, and with more match play, Nole will give himself a chance to restore it even more.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, but one week before going to The Eternal City, Djokovic’s construction project definitely took an important forward step.
Image taken from zimbio.com