There was something really honest for the uninitiated and lacking in confidence for the well-trained tennis junkie, in what he said, when Rafael Nadal repeatedly tried to highlight the fact that Novak Djokovic had gotten the better of him 5 times this year already in a championship final, during his post-match interview at the semifinal venue where Andy Murray had just run out of ideas to push this man any further. But yet, when he walked into the Arthur Ashe stadium, the yank fans who quite clearly had the softer corner in their hearts & sometimes in their mouths, for him over Novak, thought that Novak’s dream run in 2011 would have to end right there as it is impossible to imagine how a tennis player of any caliber could have such un unbeaten streak in a calendar year.
The final scores at the US Open 2011 final couldn’t be more misleading. A 4 setter, where 3 of the sets went in favor of the eventual winner Novak Djokovic 6-2, 6-2 and 6-1 is certain to make you believe that this was a tennis match where the opponent did not put up a fight at all..But..but..let me tell you, to watch the game last night for its entire duration was physically exhausting. Yes. Physically. The scoreline cannot do any justice. Period.
Shot after shot, rally after rally, game after game, both players extended the imagination of what is possible in tennis physically. If Roger Federer stayed on top mostly because of his physical fitness which in turn helped him stay alert mentally, then the secrets behind him staying physically fit for so long need a separate research or thesis. Roger was able to control his physical movement in the tennis court extraordinarily well. He isn’t a Boris Becker taking somersaults at the net in Wimbledon or a Michael Chang to accelerate like a high-speed train to get to the ball from one corner of the court to the other. He doesn’t have the kind of total body stretch that a Nadal has or the kind of athleticism that a Monfil or a Safin or a Henma or even a Sampras possesses. What makes him extraordinary is the simple fact that he is quite nimble. Anyone who is watching Federer closely will notice that his leg/feet movement within the court is so calculated. Movement that takes into account not just what is possible for that shot but more importantly what is needed for the next shot. If Federer was playing in yesterday’s final, it is hard to imagine rallies lasting this long. Or shots being hit with so much vengeful force. Or players scampering both ends of the court every 30 seconds.
To me, the 3rd set pretty much was the highlight of the match. That set alone was like an epic battle between a Spanish force and a Serbian force. Where the Spanish force was left to get through an impregnable wall of defense who would return every serve with precise accuracy and what’s worse would make you defend your own shot. If the Spanish force managed to make a small dent at the wall once, then it was almost an immediate revengeful response where the Serbian force threw the Spaniard to the corner of his courtyard to make him run here and there to save his life. In spite of that, there were a few games that lasted more than 10 minutes. Novak had almost 24 or 25 break points during the match, a fete that can only be beaten by Novak himself. That was the best set Nadal played and unfortunately for him it wasn’t enough. For a few moments right after the 3rd set, when everyone thought Novak may begin to whimper as he called for a medical timeout, no one suspected that Nadal notwithstanding coming back from a 2 set lead against him and winning the 3rd set, could actually be fighting some pain himself.
Novak exhibited why he is no. 1 really in the 4th set. If the first 2 sets were proof of Novak’s sheer talent, brilliant physical astuteness combined with great game planning and superb execution which eventually gave him that unassailable 2 set lead, then the 4th set was where he proved how mentally tough he has become in the last 12 months or so. His service speed dropped by a good 20 km/h. He had visible pain around his mid-back area. None of that deterred him from continuing to smother the court with his completely unbelievable shots that were hit with so much force and some crazy angles which only he could pull off, as his court coverage efficiency didn’t drop a bit. And then, all of a sudden, Rafael Nadal, the powerhouse of stamina started to give up. He just couldn’t handle the pressure of being pushed to the corner and having to match Novak’s court coverage. He ran out of steam. Very visibly so if the last 2 games were any indication.
By electing to play a blinder of a return shot in what at that moment was his only choice to stay alive in the tournament, in one of the greatest semifinal matches of all time against Federer, he showed all of us how far he is daring to go. I think it won’t be an exaggeration if I called that moment ‘the defining moment’ of Novak becoming the US Open 2011 champion. He brought Federer’s confidence down with that single shot in the match and for the second time in a row at an US Open semifinal. To follow that win appropriately, just like that, he wore & drained Nadal down in an epic battle in the final, whose scoreline doesn’t do justice to the effort that it took Nadal to stay alive for close to 4 hours and 15 minutes. For the 6th time this year, Nadal had to hold the runners trophy standing next to the exact same player holding the championship trophy.
If he won, Nole knew he couldn’t bite into any grass at the Arthur Ashe Stadium to celebrate his victory. I don’t think that mattered. He went onto win the US Open anyways!