Archive for July, 2011

The Out-Nadaling of Rafael Nadal

July 4, 2011 Leave a comment

This has to count as a first! Me writing about tennis when Federer isn’t in the mix! Had to happen one day… my love for tennis isn’t going to suffer the demise that any one man’s dominance on top of this beautiful sport was bound to eventually experience. Folks – this post is going to be bereft of the tears and the drama that is inevitable when writing about a Federer victory (or loss) these days. I’m going to pontificate on yesterday’s match and its technicalities in a tediously verbose manner, sounding like I know what I’m talking about – dispensing analysis while still seated snugly in my armchair of amateur tennis mediocrity.

Still reading? I’ll take that as evidence that you love me unconditionally *and* have tons of time to spare.

Many things in life provide a pleasure vastly disproportionate to their discernible importance (or lack thereof, as the case is). The preening sense of triumph with which one gives in to the temptation of saying “I told you so” must rank very high amongst these pleasures. In my last post in September last year, I heralded (rightly, I have to point out) the arrival of a new force in men’s tennis and events this year have proven me right :). This new force has emphatically underlined his presence by grabbing both the #1 spot, and the Wimbledon crown from Rafa in three days. But how? How in the world did Djoker manage this gargantuan feat? I think I know. He just out-Nadaled Nadal! We saw Djokovic take Nadal’s playbook and execute it much better than the man himself.

Let’s deconstruct the dismantling of that which was hither-to resistant to dismantling. Djoker seemed so goddamn self-assured on the court. Sports an aura of invincibility these days, if you will. He no longer seems intimidated by or in awe of Nadal – which was a marked difference in his demeanor from last year’s US Open finals. Djokovic betrays absolutely no weakness off either wings. His ability to rip winners seems to emanate from both the forehand and backhand side – which is something Federer cannot consistently do from the backhand side. With Roger, Rafa found his kryptonite and attacked his backhand relentlessly till it broke down. With Djoker, he is up against someone who has no apparent weakness – other than having the odd “off day”. While Rog does play some incredible single-handed backhands, one always gets the feeling that the next dump-into-the-net or shoot-off-the-frame-into-the-tramlines backhand, is around the corner when he plays Nadal. He simply cannot deal with the high ball to his comparatively weak backhand. In sharp contrast Djoker can actually hit clean winners off this otherwise potent weapon of Rafa’s. He takes the ball early and his perfect double-handed technique neutralizes Rafa’s top-spin and renders any threat from the looping backhand pretty mild if not entirely non-existent. And thanks to being absolutely on top of his game on both wings, Djokovic has the ability and confidence to disguise his shots until the very last minute – denying a defensive genius like Rafa that all-important read on where the next ball is going – which can make the difference between looking like you can get to every ball – and looking like you’re a milli-second slower than usual. All tennis players are taught the all-important “split-step” before they make their journey towards the ball. Against most players whose moves he can easily read, Rafa combines the split-step and the start of the journey towards the ball into one physically impossible twisting-turning-moving motion. With Djokovic, his split-step was just that and no more – robbing him of that extra millisecond of movement in the right direction.

The Djokovic of old had a decent serve, but one that was readable and not remarkable in any way. After a tumultuous period of change where he brought in Todd Martin to fix his game, ended up worse for the coaching and barely clung onto his #3 ranking for most of 2010, he seems to have found all the answers rapidly in the second half of 2010. His serve has more bite now – and he can place it anywhere in the box seemingly at will without giving the positioning away in his toss. Nadal, who thrives on reading what people are going to do with the ball, was left flatfooted on Djoker’s serve and many other shots. On the deuce court, Djoker’s serve was pretty much always placed wide to Nadal’s backhand. And since Rafa doesn’t usually dictate play with his backhand, Djok was able to dictate terms the minute the return came floating in. In sharp contrast, Djok was able to oftentimes jump all over Rafa’s wide-slice serve and denied him the setup Rafa so often relies on to pretty much never lose his service games.

Djoker’s speed, never shabby to begin with, is astounding now – as is his ability to hit while on the run. He tracked down pretty much every ball that Nadal hit yesterday, seemed to be everywhere all at once and messed with Rafa’s gameplan in much the same way that Rafa messes with all other hapless opponents. For me, the play that broke the camel’s back was at the end of the first set, when Djokovic ran down a phenomenal Rafa drop shot – and put it out of reach of the man who gets to every ball.

We now move on to the hard-court season, to what is Djokovic’s supposed strongest surface. After what I saw yesterday at Wimbledon, if I were Rafa or Roger, I’d be afraid. Very very afraid.

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