As it rained confetti at the 100th Australian Open awards ceremony, there stood Rafael Nadal next to Novak Djokovic—facing floodlights of despair, looking lost, but still holding on gracefully. A layer beneath this grace was the look of a stranger in a strange land.
The Rod Laver Arena was no more the paradise that he inhabited some Slams ago. Someone else lives in there. And that someone has found answers to all the puzzles that helped him rattle his opponents and win ever so emphatically. The more defeats he suffers at the hands of his nemesis, the farther he walks from this paradise.
It seems like a bygone era when Nadal, careening from one bout of success to another, used to frown at those who doubted his ability to keep up with his style of play that rendered his knees weak and flicked him away from the tennis circuit for a year.
Not surprising for someone who had been, by far, the most irresistible metaphor for power, force, aggression, machismo and everything in between.
But defeats—seven in a row and 10 in the last 13 face-offs against Djokovic—slowly but steadily confected a slew of doubts in Nadal’s mind, bringing about a frenetic reflectiveness that his team was simply unaccustomed to.
Physical fitness vs. mental
An endless stream of articles hit the internet the moment Djokovic took his shirt off and roared his heart out. A majority of them dwelled on the physicality of the match, the blindingly intense rallies and Djokovic falling flat on his back after the 31-shot rally in the decider.
Was it all about fitness alone? If yes, then Nadal should have won the match hands-down. Djokovic had a day’s break after his marathon fight against Murray in the semis and in fact, began looking far more desiccated as the match dragged on.
On the contrary, Nadal had an extra day off and looked all rejuvenated after his win against Federer. This victory must have meant more to him mentally as the Swiss had bageled him out in the previous match in London.
He was strutting about as usual in the final set as if the five-hour tug-of-war didn’t mean a thing to him. As always, he fought full out. He was quicker, deadlier and more menacing with his midair celebrations with a clenched fist. This alone could have enervated any other opponent.
When down, Nadal waits for a toehold to worm his way back into the contest. He found a foothold all for himself in the fourth set when Djokovic failed to convert a string of breakpoints.
This pepped up Nadal to no end. He fought back from 2-1 sets down even though the second and the third sets were clearly one-sided. He found his rhythm and his serve got sharper. He attacked Djokovic’s forehand with his.
Momentum followed Nadal into the decider like a dog following its master with its tail wagging. A belaboured Djokovic’s body language suggested as if he was undergoing a mental meltdown, too. What’s more, Nadal broke the Serb and went up 4-2. All he needed to do was hold his serve for a superb 5-2 lead.
Self-belief, a weapon Nadal didn’t have…
This is when Djokovic’s self-belief broke through once again. He refused to be intimidated by long rallies—Nadal’s bread and butter. He kept outhitting him and went for winners only after he was sure of how well he had constructed the point.
Djokovic is no stranger to Nadal’s love for condemning his opponents to relentless rallies and nonstop dread. All his success against Nadal has come from this singular ability to win rallies with punishing returns, a far superior serve and backhand.
So long as these elements of play are going his way, Djokovic doesn’t mind losing a few points or a break here and there. He rallies on, turning all the sinewy semantics on the other end of the court to mere monologues.
But one thing for sure: Djokovic did look drained when he was broken in the decider, but not beaten.
It is these moments that tests the character of one’s mental strength. You are living from shot to shot, moment to moment. The game has built you, or rather, metamorphosed you into reacting that way. If you fail to catch up with that tension and find a way turn it into your favour, Nadal will bare it all and tame you into submission in no time.
It is this realisation that helped the No.1 subdue the last robust burst of energy from Nadal and slam the door shut. He is now living the moment, being elevated by it and lulled by it.
All is not lost for the Spaniard
The ghost of Djokovic has pitched its tents firmly in every fold and crevice of Nadal’s mind. He can’t let it skulk around for long and the turmoil unfold each time he faces his nemesis.
There is hopelessness, but there is, just as irrefutably, succour as it was in this defeat that Nadal got closest to a winning chance!
At the same time, it was the same match in which there probably wasn’t a trick that Nadal didn’t ferret out from his kit. And Djokovic is well aware of how his weak points were exposed when Nadal refused to play into his backhand and denied him down-the-line winners in the latter half of the fourth and then the final set.
Some bit of cogitation, Djokovic’s team will know how to devise counterpunches and help him keep riding the wave.
That’s why this rivalry will get more engrossing than ever before.