I can't believe my eyes. Pete Bodo is actually praising Novak in his last two articles... Bandwagoner!
Out of Remission 09/16/2010 - 10:16 AM
by Pete Bodo
So you think Andy Roddick has had it tough, being denied an almost certain Wimbledon title and pehaps another U.S. Open championship as well. Well, it might be cold comfort but consider the plight of Novak Djokovic. Like Roddick, he's been stuck and spinning his wheels with one major title to his name (Australia 2008). But unlike Roddick, Djokovic is an all-purpose—or, all-surface—threat whose next Grand Slam title is just as likely to be captured on the red clay of Paris as on the verdant lawn at Wimbledon.
The just completed U.S. Open final accurately framed his dilemma; he wants to win, he's ready to win, but then...up pops Roger Federer. And if it's not Federer, it's Rafael Nadal, who's more of a contemporary of Djokovic's than of Roddick's. Roddick had one iconic player with whom to grapple even under the conditions most favorable to his game; Djokovic has two.
I'm not sure that, until the early stages of the fourth set on Monday, I've ever seen a Grand Slam loser play as boldy and courageously as Djokovic did against Nadal (well, there was that Federer-Roddick final at a Rafa-less Wimbledon in 2009...) Nor have I seen a truly great effort buried so deeply under the volumes of earned praise heaped upon the victor. Sorry, Novak, wrong place, wrong time. If it's any consolation, Roddick and Andy Murray often experience much the same problem.
Still... Everything was working for Nadal in the final. He's never played better on his least favorite surface, and were not for a newly developed serving superiority he still might have been in trouble. That's because Djokovic played remarkably positive tennis. And the adjective is the operative word for our purposes.
The narrative that emerged over the past few years has cast Djokovic—the ultra-talented, curiously personable Serb (has anyone from his part of the world seemed simultaneously so "exotic" and so familiar to us?)—as a perpetual semifinalist or quarterfinalist at the majors. The guy who, having already earned national hero status in his homeland, could certainly pick up the odd Masters 1000 title here and there. But he was soft at the majors. Sometimes, he seemed too preoccupied with entertaining the crowd and acting as an unofficial ambassador for his nation to pose a serious threat to Federer or Nadal.
But let's remember, 2009 U.S. Open champion Juan Martin del Potro is the only man other than Djokovic to have won a major since Djokovic first played one (Australian Open 2005). It's a mind-boggling statistic, and enough to tempt any player to fling up his hands and say, To hell with it, I'm just going to have a good time and pick off whatever low-hanging fruit comes my way. I'm serious when I say that Federer and Nadal may have inadvertently ruined any number of otherwise impressive men. After you spend a few years in chains, you might find their rattle musical.
But on the floor of Arthur Ashe Stadium the other night, Djokovic suggested that he wants to cast off those shackles. He often outmatched Nadal in force of shot, and he managed to look—accurately—as a man both confident and fighting for his life. At times, the grunt accompanying his swing was almost otherworldly, more evocative of a death rattle or cry of anguish than the pleasantly guttural exclamation of a guy doing his job with complete attention and effort. More than once, he loaded up and tagged that forehand in a manner that made me think, Surely, this is the last tennis shot this guy will ever hit, and he's determined to go down in a blaze of glory and self-destructive abandon.
Yet those balls continually fell inside the lines. Djokovic made Nadal's life very uncomfortable for three-plus sets at the National Tennis Center.
You could put this heroic, almost Wagnerian degree of effort expended by Djokovic down to desperation. That extra day of rest he earned via the postponement of the final because of rain on Sunday was a godsend. But it's all relative. As many players have shown, the effects of a tough, emotional five-setter in New York aren't wiped away in fewer than 48 hours (just think about Fernando Verdasco, playing his semifinal against Nadal). Djokovic insisted after the final that he felt fine, physically, but I suspect that after the win over Federer, his emotions took charge and demanded that his body—the corporeal realities—stay out of it. But they never do. He was, in my view, more tired than he knew, but men are capable of doing extraordinary things when properly motivated.
I wrote yesterday about Nadal's forehand. But in the final, Djokovic hit one more winner (he had 22) off that wing than did Nadal. Nadal hit 12 backhand winners, to Djokovic's 9, giving Nadal a slight edge in the winner count (49 to 45). The key statistic was unforced errors: Djokovic had 47, Nadal just 32. So Nadal finished with a +18 net in the error-to-winner ratio, while Djokovic ended up -2. But the most important thing this tells you is that Djokovic was more inclined to swing for the winners.
The most startling element in the match was the way Djokovic played when he found himself in a do-or-die situation. He converted three out of the only four break points he held—a tribute to his courage as well as to Nadal's talent for taking care of his serve. Nadal, by contrast, converted a dismal six of 26 break points. But nobody who watched the match would call Nadal to the carpet for that 23 percent break-point conversion rate. Djokovic played so well with his back to the wall that Nadal was moved to joke about the trouble he experienced breaking serve.
"In the statistics of the ATP I was No. 1 in break points converted," Nadal said, grinning. "So I think after this tournament I don't want to [he meant "won't"] be No. 1 on the break points converted."
All this must have been a bitter potion for Djokovic to digest, but he took it like a man. The good news is that in the latter stages of the tournament, Djokovic played anything like the perpetual semifinalist. I had to ask him if he felt as if he reinvented himself. He replied: "I've played the best tennis certainly in the last seven, eight months, maybe the whole year... I feel much more comfortable on the court, more confident, and getting this aggressive game back, the game I need to have in order to stay at the top, and a game that has been a part of me, always."
A part of him, yes, but sometimes in remission. It was nice to see it back.
The Radical Conventional 09/15/2010 - 12:33 PM
by Pete Bodo
Mornin'. I'm coming off eight hours sleep for the first time in weeks, so watch out, keyboard! Ha. Seriously, though, a regular night's sleep in the cool, tangy country air is tonic for the soul and mind. And I find it helps me think clearly and maybe get a little further under the skin of things, including the huge achievement of Rafael Nadal.
The problem for me on the night of the U.S. Open men's singles final was having to choose between writing a "gamer" (a story emphasizing the match play and its attendant details) or a "reaction" piece analyzing the big picture meaning of the match, and how Rafa managed to complete a career Grand Slam. I felt appropriately torn. Whichever I chose, I had to ignore some tantalizing issues. But as journalists have been said to be the authors of "the first draft of history," I thought I ought to go with the Big Picture piece. Besides, you all saw the match—you didn't need my eyes to tell you what just happened.
It's a pity, in a way, because I am still trying to figure out how to explain why this final seems likely to lodge in my mind as one of the best tennis matches I've ever seen; it's right up there, as of now, somewhere in the top half-dozen. That's because I've rarely seen so compelling a display of the pure, shotmaking sensibility that Novak Djokovic brought to the court, nor the gale-force power, consistency, and athleticism of Nadal. And while Novak hit the most glorious winners, one of my match notes says I've never seen anyone hit a tennis ball as persuasively as Rafa Nadal.
Roger Federer (don't ever expect me to write about Rafa without Roger's name lurking eight or 11 characters distant) routinely produces magical shots, and he's been as close to an embodiment of quicksilver as anyone who ever played this game. But nobody, including Federer, swings the racket (at least on the forehand side) with the unique combination of raw, explosive power and absolute control as Nadal. Every decent player can do this now and then—time the arrival of a ball and generate adequate racquet-head speed and force to hit the most punishing shot of which he is capable. But nobody can do it as routinely, and make it so intrinsic a part of his game plan, as Nadal.
The sheer brutality of a typical Nadal forehand is a quality that attracts some and repels others. Those who are put off by it might appreciate the gladitorial splendor a bit more if they also acknowledged that to belt a ball with such force requires enormous natural power (is there a better one word description of the essence of life in all its forms than "power"?), applied in a very different way than, say, crushing the skull of a sabertooth tiger with a rock. To hit a tennis shot the way Nadal does repeatedly also demands exquisite timing, body control, and an astonishing degree of discipline and self-assurance—the latter being qualities we generally hold in the highest regard. Each swing of that piledriving forehand basically shouts, "I was born to do this."
Nadal's self-assurance—or should I say, the self-assurance expressed in the shots he hits and the way he hits them—is a radiant, somehow soothing thing to behold. Whatever else you say about it, the only thing you know for sure is that he can't possibly do that thing he's doing any better. It's a fully-realized idea. Don't you wonder how it feels to Nadal himself to hit that shot, a jolt of satisfaction that can only be blunted by the startling frequency with which he must experience it? Most of us get to experience that feeling now and then, but rarely in an undertaking involving ball and racket, and never with such frequency.
I don't think you can appreciate what Nadal brings to the table without backtracking to his early days on the ATP tour, or without contemplating the sometimes fierce disdain some have for Nadal. Think of it this way: If you look out your window and see your neighbor walking to the bus station on his hands, you're likely to jump up and shout: Kids, come quick, Kowalski is walking to the bus upside down! But see it repeatedly, and by the third week you're likely to just glance up and mutter, Look at that silly Kowalski, those socks don't even match his shoes!
That's how it is with Rafa; he's turned the radical into the conventional. To say he plays "ugly" tennis has evolved from an aesthetic and already somewhat irrelevant observation into an astonishing declaration of ignorance. A bitter fan of one of his rivals can cling to it; any port in storm and all that. But the reality as I see it is that Nadal figured out a new way to accomplish the paramount goal in tennis, or any game: to win.
The more important truth is that Nadal plays "successful" tennis, and that matters. It's why they keep score, and also why we can appreciate beautiful tennis as well. I don't think you would sell many tickets to a tennis match if it were just a demonsration, like dance, even if the star were as gifted and eye-pleasing a player as Federer. And if you still haven't gotten over that that "ugly tennis" hump, just try to appreciate that a player who hits his forehand like David Ferrer—in other words, a wonderful, effective, even pretty forehand—can only aspire to be as good as Ferrer, which is danged good, but nowhere near as good as is Nadal.
I don't know that Nadal will transform tennis, re-making it in something like his own image the way the trinity of Jimmy Connors, Chris Evert and Bjorn Borg did when they showed up at roughly the same time with their two-handed backhands—the repercussions of which are still being felt. That's a big ask, because what Nadal does calls for a potent combination of superior, natural and learned abilities not easily distinguished from each other. Nadal may not transform the way the game is played, but there's no doubt in my mind that Nadal is essentially a transformational character, pointing the way toward a place that perhaps nobody else can reach.