Saturday at Wimbledon, tennis fans got what they deserved.
No, no, I don’t mean that in a pejorative way at all.
When the semifinal round was reached and the bottom part of the men’s draw produced Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, the promise of adding another high-quality encounter to the many thrillers in the most prolific rivalry in men’s tennis could only generate excitement among tennis fans.
Djokovic won, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6, 3-6, 10-8.
I’ll repeat again: Tennis fans got what they deserved. With the exception of a couple of short sequences on Saturday, two massive champions offered their best to spectators on Centre Court and to viewers worldwide over two days and five sets. Part one took three sets on Friday evening, part two took two, with the fifth set extended to 10-8.
The two parts of the match were played on different terms and deserve to be looked at separately, because what defined one did not come into play as much in the other. Let begin with Friday’s part.
Due to the previous semifinal’s late end time, the roof was closed and lights were switched on, in order to allow for the maximum time available for play before the curfew took effect at 11 p.m. By the time Nadal served the first point of the match at 8:09 p.m., the players had a little less than three hours to either complete the match or carry on as far as they could, before returning next day to resume.
It’s unclear if Nadal planned it all along or if he decided to do so once the roof closed and conditions became more suitable to it, but in any case, he began the match vigorously aggressive both on serves and his groundies. Djokovic was ready, though, and began answering with strikes of his own. After the first two games, it already felt like we were in for a treat. One of the biggest questions I had – and talked about in my preview – was quickly answered. Djokovic’s footwork was on display in its finest form. These two phenomenal athletes, as they have done so many times before, were going to play a contest of who is better at constructing favorable patterns in rallies. Why? Because putting the ball away was not going to be easy for either of them, even though they ended up overachieving in that department too (73 winners each and a boatload of forced errors).
Let me pause here and hone in on a pattern that has greatly benefited Djokovic over the course of their rivalry, one that, in my opinion, has given Nadal fits. This pattern has bothered Rafa enough to be an essential part of why Novak represents a more daunting challenge to Nadal from the baseline than anyone else.
Anytime Novak plays a point in which he engages Rafa’s backhand with his crosscourt forehand more than once, he gets ahead of the Spaniard in that rally. The nuance is that he does not stay with that pattern more than three or four shots. In other words, this is not done solely for the benefit of hitting one’s favorite shot repeatedly to the other’s (seemingly) weaker side – this is closer to what Nadal has chosen to do with Federer in the past, for example. He is perfectly comfortable rallying with his forehand crosscourt to Roger’s backhand for as long as it takes until it produces an error from the Swiss, or the ball falls short enough for him to strike the winner.
Djokovic, however, is not looking for an extended rally with his forehand crosscourt to Nadal’s backhand. He is looking for a couple of shots, at best three or four, and not necessarily in a row, with the intention to either accelerate down the line to Rafa’s open-court forehand side when it becomes available, or produce a sharper crosscourt on the second or third try, seeking to throw Rafa outside the boundaries of the court.
It does not matter that Nadal has turned his backhand into a weapon over the last few years. Once Novak gets him pinned to the ad corner with his forehand for a shot or two, Nadal is faced with the endlessly annoying “how-do-I-get-out-of-this” puzzle, one that he has struggled to solve.
Let me provide examples from the first set alone for those interested in seeing them on their own without going into too much detail here, because I will do that a bit later with two glaring ones from the third-set tiebreaker.
Watch the third point of the 2-2 game, the first point of the 3-3 game, and the first two points of the all-important 5-4 game. These are just a few of several points in the first set where Djokovic had success when engaging Nadal in that particular pattern during rallies. Novak won six out of seven points in that set when he was able to strike at least two forehands to Nadal’s backhand in a rally. Remember, I am not counting the times when he won the point after one such forehand drive and Nadal made an error trying to get that one back, or when Djokovic approached on one and won it at the net.
Heck, Djokovic even started the second set by winning another such point. This is why the deuce point on Novak’s serve when he trailed Rafa 2-3 in the second set represents a major swing point. You see the pattern emerge again, but this time, Nadal gets the best of him by nailing one of his hardest backhand crosscourts of the match and turning the tables on Djokovic to win the point.
With that in mind, see Rafa’s animated reaction at the end of the point. Racket immediately moved to the right hand as he watched Novak’s lob land wide. He left fist-pumped and swung to the ground followed by a “Vamos,” and a second one again, just like that. Folks, that is the reaction of someone relieved to finally overcome at an important point what has been a nightmare for him. The only other point he won in those types of rallies was early in the first set. He had lost eight of those since then.
That also represents the moment when the match began to turn in the Spaniard’s favor for the first time. He broke Djokovic’s serve – his first break of the match – on the ensuing point to finally get a leg up on the Serb at 4-2. That sequence eventually enabled Nadal to level the match at one set each.
Now, let’s press the fast-forward button and arrive at the third-set tiebreaker and talk about two of the most critical points – in my opinion, the most critical – of the match. They were both won by Novak Djokovic. The first one saved him from going down two sets to one to Nadal; the other put him up two sets to one.
Djokovic faced three set points in the tiebreaker, but two of them were on his serves, at 5-6 and 7-8. He saved them both with two first serves that Nadal could not manage to return back in the court. The other one, at 6-7, was on Nadal’s serve, so he could not depend on his serve to save it. He needed to return Rafa’s serve and figure out a way to win from the baseline. He returned straight to Rafa’s backhand, which sent it back crosscourt, thus allowing Djokovic to pin him to the backhand corner with his crosscourt forehand once again. He did just that; from that moment forward, Nadal had to scramble and chase Novak’s shots for the next four shots, eventually losing the point on a drop shot by the Serb.
Then came the 10-9 point, Novak’s second set point, in which Novak engaged Rafa in the same pattern again. He hit six forehands to Nadal’s backhand corner in that rally, five of them from his deuce side. It was an 18-shot rally won by Novak at the end, because Rafa, under assault from Novak’s forehand crosscourts, felt the need to change direction with his backhand and slice it down the line, except that it fell a bit short and Novak placed a fantastic backhand down the line, this time forcing an error out of Rafa. Whether it was done consciously or not, Djokovic went to the pattern that had worked for him until then on the two biggest points of Friday, and perhaps, the match.
Friday’s quality of tennis was hard to describe in words, but for those who have the time, my advice would be to watch this tiebreaker to see two elite champions at their best. There was only one “bad” point in it and it came on a double fault by Djokovic to start it. The rest was a tennis extravaganza.
Then came part two on Saturday. It turned out to be a vastly different style of play compared to the evening before, with different elements determining the outcome, although the first game of the fourth set did not give that impression. Somehow, Djokovic and Nadal were able to
start from the gate with the same intensity and produce almost the same quality of tennis as the tiebreaker of the third set, as though they never took the overnight break, during a stunning 16-minute-long first game. Not being able to break Nadal’s serve despite having two break-point opportunities had an impact on Djokovic, who lost his serve in the next game. Nadal then played a “blank” game: He “blanked” his opponent with three stunning shots, the last two forehand winners clocking in at warp speed.
When you thought Nadal was running away with the fourth set, he played his worst game of the match at 3-1 on his serve. It included two forehand unforced errors, plus another one that was forced but should have gotten back into the court, and a drop volley that bounced high enough for Novak to pass him without difficulty. Although Djokovic got back on serve, he played a bad game of his own at 3-4, featuring a double fault to start it and a forehand unforced error to end it. Nadal held the next game and the fourth set went in the record books as 6-3 in Nadal’s favor. After that remarkable first game, the level of tennis went down to what most of us humans would call “good.” It’s all relative; we were spoiled from the evening before and had high hopes after the first game. Frankly, it would not have been realistic to expect that level of performance for five sets straight.
In the fifth set, the match took on a different tone — one that I did not expect, I must admit, if you read my preview. All of sudden, serves became the dominant shots, reminiscent of the first semifinal played on Friday between Kevin Anderson and John Isner, or the quarterfinal between Anderson and Roger Federer. Each player began to collect two or three points per service game just on first serves. Not only was it surprising in the sense that these two players are not among the biggest servers in the ATP, it was also unusual to see the two players many consider the top returners in our sport fail to get more returns back in the court.
Of course, it was not as simple as I make it sound, either. Both players came up with clutch first serves or aces whenever they found themselves down a break point, or two points away from losing their serve at 0-30 or 15-30. Djokovic, for example, came up with an ace and a winning first serve at 4-4, 15-40, to recover and hold. He did it again at 7-7, 15-40, when he saved the first break point with a big serve that allowed him to use the 1-2 punch to win it and aced on the next point to recover to deuce.
Nadal, for his part, saved a break point at 3-4 with a hard first serve that curved into Djokovic’s body and jammed his forehand for an error. At 4-5, 0-30 down, Nadal came up with four straight winning first serves to climb out of the dangerous hole and tie at 5-5. At 7-8, he saved a match point and closed the game with an ace.
Something had to give, and it came at Nadal’s detriment. In a set when servers dominated, it was ironically a blank break game that ended the match. He first missed a forehand on a deep return by Djokovic to go down 0-15. Next, he responded to Djokovic’s drop shot with another drop shot of his own (not a great one, a bit high). Novak saw it coming and moved up in time to hit the cross-court backhand passing shot. In the 0-30 point, he slipped and fell on a running forehand which caused him to scramble for the next shot and miss it to go down 0-40.
The curtains closed down on Nadal when he missed a forehand crosscourt that he would normally make. This also brings me to a larger point that I have been meaning to make for a while.
What the Spaniard has achieved in the last two years, since the beginning of 2017 after his return from injury, is simply astonishing. I believe we can all agree that the world number one still maintains high standards of baseline efficiency and remains the fiercest competitor on the tour at the age of 32. Many have said that he has even improved his game – the same argument has been made for Roger Federer in the same fashion, after his comeback from injury at the same time as Nadal – and is now a better player than he was before. I can completely agree that his backhand has gotten better over the years, as well as his net skills.
But – and you knew there was a “but” coming – his best shot, the forehand, is no longer what it used to be. I know this may come as a surprise to many, but the signs are there.
Many experts – including current commentators and ex-professional players – argued for years, with valid reasons, that Rafa’s forehand was the best in the game. Whether it had been the case or not prior to his comeback in the beginning of 2017 is anybody’s call. One thing that I can firmly say, however, it is not what it used to be since then. His most important defeats of 2017 came via forehand unforced errors, often ones that he would make in his sleep at his peak.
The forehand missed against Federer at game point, leading 3-2 in the fifth set of the 2017 Australian Open final, plus the two forehand unforced errors both coming in the extension games of the fifth set in his loss to Gilles Muller in the fourth round of last year’s Wimbledon, are a few of several examples when his forehand let him down in the last year and a half.
Saturday was also one of those days. There is not a single point to which I can refer and say, “this one cost him dearly,” as I can in the above examples. Yet, there was a stream of forehand errors flowing from Nadal’s racket in the fifth set that put him in significantly difficult positions on the scoreboard. He made 22 unforced errors (my own count) on his forehand throughout the match, with eight of them coming after 3-3 in the fifth set. He made one forehand unforced error per game over the last four games.
This is not even counting the forehands that you would expect him to get back in the court even if he is on the full run. A great example is the 4-4 game with Djokovic serving, at deuce. Djokovic comes to the net and hits an angled backhand volley on the stretch, leaving the court open for a forehand passing shot if Nadal can get to it. Rafa does indeed get to it, although he is on the full run. But the court is wide open — all he needs to do is land the ball back in the court. He doesn’t, he misses it wide. That counts as a forced error in the stats, but it is definitely a point that Nadal should have won. It would have given him a third chance to break Djokovic on that ninth game.
Nadal is a master of finding solutions to problems and I am not even sure if this can be called a “problem.” He still hit a ton of terrific forehands throughout the match. It’s just that the 2018 forehand is not the same Nadal forehand that set his high standards during the 2008-14 period (give or take a year).
Novak Djokovic will take on Kevin Anderson in the final on Sunday, a match in which he will step on Centre Court at 2:00 p.m. as the clear favorite to win a major. Believe it or not, that is a position he has not been in since 2016. But as tennis fans, we should all be glad to have him back in one piece, and in full form.
That form was displayed at Wimbledon in a match which reminded us of everything that is great — and tactically fascinating — about the Djokovic-Nadal rivalry.