Belief, one of the many attributes of a ‘champion’, was more apparent than anything else at Arthur Ashe Stadium when Rafael Nadal announced his grandslam comeback with a sweet and emotional victory over his long-time nemesis, Novak Djokovic. Nadal was not short of doubters as he arrived into the American hard court summer. His Wimbledon performance against Steve Darcis might have scared more than many fans, bringing back the worst memories of Nadal’s 2012 post the Rosoler. Nadal’s career has had its share of scars, often received at the hands of unfamiliar rackets. However, more than the defeat, the dreadful mirage of yet another injury plagued season started to haunt. Wimbledon setback has served enough fodder to the hungry horses in tennis writers. Well, Nadal continues to feed the writers and the media, but this time around, he chose a different path to do so!
It was 2:30 in the morning here in India as I was sneaking out of my bed into the TV room, feeling uncommonly fresh and eagerly awaiting the clash of the modern tennis titans. As Djokovic and Nadal walked onto the court on the evening of the final, something in Nadal told me that he might avenge his humiliating defeat in 2011. Probably, his all-grey outfit and short hair reminded me of the merciless ‘assassin’ he played in the US Open 2010 final..! It was 37th time that Rafael Nadal faced Novak Djokovic. The attendance of Justin Timberlake, Jessica Biel, Leonardo DiCaprio, Sean Connery decorated the house, whose center stage was occupied by Rafole. But, it was a pleasure watching those wonderful artists witness the most celebrated contest in tennis world. The match started on even terms with each player holding their serves at 1-1. Serving for the game, Djokovic was reluctant to return a ball directed to his backhand, after having committed to his forehand wing. Djokovic was proven wrong in his anticipation. Familiarity doesn’t always guarantee comfort, for an occasional surprise might be too hard to digest. Djokovic’s focus wavered when Nadal had started being unpredictable; in retrospect, I was starting to feel vindicated of my prediction when Djokovic was ‘broken’ for that game and eventually, the set. I wondered if a culmination similar to the 2010 US Open final was on the cards. Their previous meetings in 2010 and 2011 were decided by the winner of the first set and it was hard to not foresee Nadal’s seizure.
Djokovic was, perhaps, expecting to counter Nadal’s predictable aggression, but it took him a set to realize that he was playing NADAL, full of resolve and belief. In his post SF match presser at French Open, Djokovic seemed amazed that Nadal went for few uncharacteristic shots, which often ended up as winners. This reminded me of 2011 US Open presentation ceremony, when Nadal had one thing to say to Djokovic – “What you did this year is probably impossible to repeat…so well done!” Nadal is never known to be appreciative of himself and his skills; he runs with a fear of losing and thrives on adversity! Within his appreciation of Djokovic’s tennis, one could also sense a cup filled with bitter tea called ‘disbelief’. Absolute awe of Djokovic, with a rattled mind hoping for a dip in Djokovic’s game, didn’t seem to help Nadal. Negativity seemed to be looming him and his results in final part of 2011 are reflective of this.
Though, Nadal soon struck the balance that a champion needs. Being naturally insecure, it was time for the arrogance to show up for Nadal! He conveyed his fearlessness to Djokovic at Melbourne, 2012. By his own admission, that epic 5 set thriller has re-instilled confidence in Nadal to challenge Djokovic, and he walked off with a new game-plan. Confidence was justified when he took Djokovic down at Monte Carlo the same year. Nadal has started to identify flaws in his game and adapted to the rising demands set by Djokovic. Fundamentally, it took courage for Nadal to accept defeat and admit that his game wasn’t on par with Djokovic. Self confession and honesty gifted Nadal with a refreshing breeze, as he stood up to solve the riddle and pushed himself to newer heights. His newly manufactured weapons’ artillery – deep and purposeful backhands down-the-line, sharp angles to weaken Djokovic’s forehand, sharp and low rhythm-disturbing slices, tactical surprises, surges towards the net, and most importantly restored BELIEF. I now find Djokovic in a place similar to Nadal’s, post his crushing defeat in 2011 USO. While Nadal started to attain balance with acceptance, it remains to be seen if Djokovic opts to admit to the fact Nadal’s residence has moved to a new hill!
Set 3, 4-4…Nadal has just broken Djokovic back to level the terms in third set. Many people couldn’t help but wonder if Djokovic’s ground strokes have started to lose that zip and penetration to deflate Nadal’s defense. Aggressive court positioning and sharp anticipation, two invaluable ingredients for a hard court game, have helped Nadal deny the edge Djokovic was seeking. Nadal v2011 would have fumbled at 4-4 0-40 in the third set. But, the resilience and sense of pressure has brought out the ruthless warrior in him. Djokovic has already received a tactical surprise in set 1 and did well to overcome it by breaking Nadal twice in a row to claim set 2. However, this psychological surprise was probably not foreseen in Djokovic’s mind. And, he could not find an answer to this sky rocketing belief in Nadal. As Djokovic voiced his thoughts later, he did no wrong to lose that set. Nadal just geared his game up to another level and Djokovic could not find an answer. He faltered by conceding the decisive game to a commanding Nadal. That was the championship!
Unlike Djokovic, familiarity assisted Nadal, as he could just digest and absorb those few surprises Djokovic threw at him. It would be one of the most memorable and emotional seasons for Nadal, if he can cap his year off with a good Asian swing and a Master’s Cup, which would be the first in his populated trophy cabinet. It has been an absolute treat to watch some of his most aggressive brand of tennis and here is to hoping that he continues to enthrall one and all. As a fan of tennis, and an admirer of Nadal, I’d love if Nadal relinquishes one of his many habits – falling down to rise again!