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MORTAL COMBAT

Saqib Ali

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Matt Zemek

Yes, Rafael Nadal wanted to recover ground in the head-to-head against Novak Djokovic. Yes, Rafa wants to win Rome and retake No. 1. Yes, Novak Djokovic would have loved to have won Rome, thereby gaining points instead of losing the 240 he shedded by falling short in Saturday’s Rome semifinal.

Yet, all of that was peripheral — not meaningless, no, but secondary to a much bigger and more central question in the Foro Italico: Would Djokovic — survivor of a very rough period in his career, laden with physical pain and mind-body disruptions and coaching changes — be able to go toe-to-toe in the boxing ring with the ultimate clay-court expert? Would Djokovic just show up and “gather information,” or would he make Nadal sweat in more than a literal sense? Would Djokovic not only fight well (that was never a question in my mind), but execute with enough force and conviction to make Nadal remember what it was like when one opponent regularly gave him no true comfort zone on clay?

Players play to win, not merely register moral or pyrrhic victories, but players also know that — to use a familiar cliche — Rome wasn’t built in a day. In this Roman gladiatorial spectacle, dying was not the main concern. Dying nobly, knowing the opponent tasted his own blood, was the true central aim.

No, the return of Novak Djokovic is not now a finished product — how his changed body holds up over five sets is still a question which needs to be answered in Paris. Yet, Djokovic continued, strongly and significantly, to show that he is on the right track in restoring his level of quality. There are no guarantees in life, and no one should be whispering “done deal!” to themselves, but steadily, brick by brick, Djokovic’s rebuilding project is moving forward. He didn’t beat Rafa on Saturday, but he damn sure made Nadal feel every last ounce of his presence. Rafa fans on Twitter walked through the old stages of anxiety and dread Djokovic used to conjure on an even more regular basis. So many shapshots of “The Old Djokovic” emerged on Saturday that it became harder — not easier — to doubt that the Serbian superstar will eventually figure it all out.

It’s not a given. It is not merely a matter of time… but the process is certainly flowing in the right direction.

Angled backhands. Formidable defense. Responding to negative scoreboard situations at 2-5 in the first set. Not allowing Rafa to run away with the second set. These and other indicators showed that for all of his hiccups, most notably in Barcelona and Madrid, Djokovic is looking more and more like a restored player. Having Marian Vajda by his side means as much as everybody thought it would. Familiar voices and familiar processes are creating a familiar upward progression.

Will this upward progression continue into a best-of-five-set realm? That we don’t know… and that’s also why the Roland Garros draw is such a huge event this year. Djokovic could be ready to make the Roland Garros final, but if he plays Rafa in the round of 16 or the quarters, that point might not matter. Even if Djokovic’s condition is better than what the skeptics think and on par with what the optimists think, the draw can be the card which trumps that debate in terms of Roland Garros-based significance.

For now, this much is clear: Djokovic — while not yet the terrorizing force he was two years ago at Roland Garros when he won four majors in a row — is doing almost everything he can to suggest that he will regain a place at the very top of the sport. This doesn’t mean he will win four majors in a row for a second time, but it does mean that Djokovic, if he continues on this path, will return to a major final and cause an opponent’s fan base to feel the kind of dread which hasn’t been felt since the 2016 U.S. Open.

He is getting there. He isn’t yet there, and he needs help from the Roland Garros draw, but Novak Djokovic is getting closer to where he wants to be, instead of slipping farther away.

That is all he could have reasonably asked for in Rome… while Rafael Nadal knows that if he plays Djokovic at any point in the upcoming Roland Garros extravaganza, notions of an easy coronation, a kingly stroll to a championship, will have to be put on hold.

* Image Source: Julian Finney/Getty Images Europe

 

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