Novak Djokovic wasn’t always the impenetrable titan he has turned into since Serbia took home the Davis Cup in 2010.
Sure, he has always had the ability to change the direction of ball seemingly at will, to pounce on the serve early, to defend like his legs were made of springs. But back in the days of 2007-2010, Novak was also a man who at times couldn’t always finish a point he had set up for himself under pressure or convert the chances he had against Federer or Nadal. And one of his biggest accomplishments over the past 18 months has been to make that player that we used to know disappear.
We saw a shadow of Novak’s former self yesterday, as he unleashed a slew of unforced errors yesterday in his 75 63 loss to Nadal, creating opportunities for himself throughout the match, but dutifully shanking each one with theatrics.
In fact, the final in its entirety was beset by such frustrations. The first set saw the two players exchange breaks, until 5-4 30-all, when an overruled call on Djokovic’s forehand gave Rafa a replay point. Rafa went on to hold easily, and Satan was made to feel sufficiently robbed by then that he descended into an internal state of fitful rage.
In the next game, as Nadal used a superb dropshot to set himself up at the net and get the crucial break, Satan smashed a racquet on the net post in anger, inspiring a chorus of Roman boos. The testy, self-berating Novak Djokovic we used to know was back on court.
The second set saw Rafa gain a quick break early on, which he clung on to with tenacity, despite constant pressure from Djokovic in every one of his service games. That said, Djokovic did a fine job of wasting any chance he had of getting back into the set. The farcical quality of the match finally came to a fitting end, as Djokovic double faulted on match point to give Nadal his third win of the clay season and the No 2 ranking.
In many ways, Djokovic’s frustration over his own failure to execute in the final was understandable. A win over Rafa in Rome would have consolidated the ground he gained over the Spaniard during the clay season last year – gains which were eventually made redundant by Federer in Paris. While Djokovic could’ve explained away Rafa’s easy victory in Monte Carlo with the death of his grandfather, a second loss in Rome, more than 3 weeks after the event, is much harder to blame on extraneous factors.
Post match, Djokovic gave a rather cranky press conference, but still insisted that he’ll head to Roland Garros with confidence.
… he [Nadal] is always the favourite even if I win against him 7 times – he is the best player in the world on this surface, and the two wins I had gave me confidence, and I think that the match today was quite close even if he won in straight sets. If you don’t use the opportunities against Rafa, he gets momentum. I made unforced errors and I don’t think he played extremely well. I made a lot of errors which should not happen when you play against Nadal and. I will go to Paris with confidence and I played a great week.
Despite his attempt to be positive about Roland Garros, I wonder just how much of the Novak we used to know this clay season has brought back. With two losses to Nadal, and a show of bad form – both on court and off – in Madrid, Djokovic heads to Paris just a little more deflated than he was this time last year.
But given just how much the dynamics of clay season last year didn’t affect the end results of Roland Garros, perhaps this won’t even matter.