Novak executed it so well that it was the best part of his gameplan, winning him his fourth major, second consecutive one after Wimbledon this year. Had he not lost to Roger Federer in the French Open semis this year, Nadal could have probably suffered Slam-drought just like Roger, and Novak would have walked away with a calendar year sweeping all four majors. Such is the ferocity of his play these days.
Nadal’s prospects of winning his 11th major looked bleak right from the third game of the first set itself. Rafa’s below-average service performance gave such a tactical edge to his opponent that Novak’s service returns flew way faster than Nadal’s serves. Even before Nadal finished his full service motion, the return was right there over his body or so far away that the world No.2 shanked it many times. He couldn’t get his footwork going.
Novak broke Nadal three times in the first set and the score, 6-2, was in the books. When the second set began, both of them hit powerful groundstrokes and it was Nadal who broke Novak’s serve and lunged at 2-0. But then came one of the defining moments of the match. Nadal’s hope to make it 3-0 fell flat with his service game lasting 17 minutes, 15 seconds, and running into eight deuces! Nadal serving at an average 101 mph (later it fell to 75 mph a few times), did his best to hold his game. The rallies so were long and harrowing, with each rally averaging 7.7 shots.
Compare this with how Roger controlled Novak in the semis. Roger kept the points so short that the average time for each point was just four seconds! The first set between them saw only a couple of long rallies. Only Roger knows how to play so masterfully, hit aces at will, win the first two sets, and then forget that he is “Roger Federer” in the next two. He comes back valiantly in the fifth, hits a multitude of winners, and then squanders away two match points. It was yet another weird loss that beats imagination, no matter how dispassionately you judge it.
Back to the finals. Though Novak kept piling up unforced errors, he won crucial points and tucked in the second set at 6-4.
Here was the second crucial moment. Guess who cracks first in the third set? The man who has beaten Nadal consecutively for five times in the last five finals, is riding on a 63-2 winning streak and, with two sets in his pockets in this match, lets Nadal dictate the points. Nadal’s serve finds its way back and he begins to serve better, if not as effective as he did the whole of last year. The set goes to a tie-breaker and Nadal wins it easily, 6-7(3).
Djokovic, beating the greatest baseliner in the world with powerful baseline strokes in the first two sets and managing to hammer down some laser-sharp winners in the third, was so spent and looked like he would surrender to lower back muscle strain. After a medical time-out and a pill-popping session, Novak gets up, and finds yet another gear.
I was thinking Nadal would simply crush his injured opponent (as he always does) and win the fourth set in a jiffy. Novak, unable to arch his back for a full, regular service motion, figured out a way to put the service in the court (mostly first serves!) and then go for sharp-angle shots. He curbed his unforced errors and began attacking Nadal’s serve that once again lost its sting. He hit forehand winners down the line with pin-point accuracy. Nadal had cramps, or so it seemed. He began to look lost in the Arthur Ashe stadium despite the huge crowd egging him on. It was not tennis, but soccer-like atmosphere. Novak was disturbed many times in between the points. He got so frustrated at one point that he begged the crowd to behave.
Despite all the noise, the painkillers kicked in and the momentum swung to Novak’s favour. He took the set to 3-0 just like that. I think the third set, the best by Novak, defined very well why he has an upper hand over the Spaniard. The first three sets were more about power and grunting. It was only in the final set that Novak let his mind play his game. All that Nadal could manage was to win just one and his last game of the last Grand Slam final of 2011. The rest went Novak’s way. He was the last man standing –both in pain and immense happiness.
When this dapper player in a white-rimmed, red T-shirt lifted the trophy, 10-time GS champion Nadal must have realised what it takes to stand in Roger’s shoes.
(A version of this article first appeared in Unboxed Writers on Sept 13, 2011)