First Serb Percentage, Last Serb Standing (by Matt)
This is a Roger Federer fan blog, but it’s also a tennis commentary blog. Before the Fedporn onslaught of Davis Cup, then, we need – as good sportsmen and women, like Woger – to tip the cap to those other two guys, especially Serbia’s finest modern athlete.
(If you’re still hurt, have a cool, vintage Fedrinka and know that pain – sweet, aching pain – is part of a burning and satisfying love affair. #HUGS )
Therefore, when Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal slug it out in a second straight major final, it’s important to separate beliefs from facts and personal tastes from prevailing truths. We are all entitled to our preferences and our views of what tennis should look like when it is played at its best, but we’re not entitled to say that Djokovic and Nadal are second-rate players, because they’re not. You can claim that Monday’s U.S. Open men’s final was not the height of aesthetic bliss inside the confines of the tennis rectangle, but you can’t claim – not with any credibility, at any rate – that one of the most memorably brutal boxing matches (that’s a compliment and an accurate description) in the history of tennis was a poor showcase of the sport’s possibility and potential.
I didn’t watch this match live – thank you, CBS and the United States Tennis Association, for scheduling the U.S. Open into a fourth straight Monday conclusion when better options are eternally available – but I caught the replay and tried to look at the match with fresh eyes, even while knowing the result. I began to tell myself, “So, Twitter was really captured by this match. Americans who were excited about the return of Monday Night Football (one of the most lucrative and treasured television properties in the history of televised sports) had their heads turned by tennis. Was the spectacle worthy of such praise?”
In a word, yes.
I will blog on the year in tennis and the history of the sport in a companion piece here on the Picket Fence. That’s where we’ll talk about Wogie McSquishy’s place in all of this. However, in this specific post, it’s worth giving time to the two men who have joined Mr. Federer on Mount Rushmore in this golden age of men’s tennis. You might not like Rafa (I do) or Djokovic (I tolerate him and choose to focus on his excellence), and you might think that one essay devoted to these two men is one essay too many. I understand. However, it’s harder to appreciate McFed if his rivals can’t be given their due.
On with the show, then…
The most striking feature about Nadal-Djokovic matches – and this U.S. Open final magnified it to the fullest possible extent (as did the 2009 Madrid semifinal) – is that these two guys are macho men. Oh, this doesn’t mean Federer is a metrosexual wimp – no, I’m not going there, and I’m not implying that I’m going there, either. The point is that Nadal and Djokovic derive pleasure and enjoyment from the notion of outlasting opponents, chiefly each other. The Mallorcan and the Serb prefer to be known as endurance runners, not as artists playing tennis the way it should be played (that’s Wogie’s bag). They throw their bodies around the court more than anyone on tour whose name is not Gael Monfils. They are the two most expert sliders on non-clay surfaces. They risk their limbs and throw caution to the wind instead of playing the far more economical style that has Mr. Federer fit as a fiddle and ready for more years of quality tennis at age 30.
All tennis players’ feet get mashed up over the course of a year (well, unless you’re a Dmitry Tursunov type who loses in the first round of every tournament), but Nadal and Djokovic place a premium on prime podiatrists with particular passion. No tennis players have ever tortured their feet more in the search of not just victory, but also the swagger that wins matches for players before they step onto the court. When they play each other, then, it’s like a couple of bucks whacking antlers or two bears wrestling with full-tilt intensity. Federer is first and foremost a stylist; Nadal and Djokovic? They are the street fighters of the sport. They need to feel a punch thrown hard against their bodies in order to feel alive. They want the combat to be difficult. They crave collisions and want to thrive not in spite of conflict, but BECAUSE of it.
Toni Nadal and the history of Serbia have taught Rafa and Novak about the importance and centrality of suffering. (Switzerland and the Parents Federer taught Wogie to grow up and not make a scene on the court.) Every human being comes from a family or nation (or both) which shape a holistic outlook in the ripening years of young-adult life. One outlook or way of being isn’t inherently better than the other; people will simply prefer one path more than the other. In assessing Nadal, Djokovic, and the matches they produce, the quality of competition is exalted and the commitment to craft is off the charts. That’s reality (how exalted and how stratospheric the quality – that’s a matter of opinion). One’s personal tastes might not embrace the way Nadal and Djokovic (or just Rafa, or just Djokovic) play this sport, but there can be no doubt that these are two extraordinarily skilled, strong-willed, belief-filled, sturdy-in-build, legends-guild specimens of tennis excellence. We prefer the way Federer goes about his business, of course, but that shouldn’t deprive both Nadal – owner of 10 majors – and Djokovic, the owner of one of the very best years in tennis history – of their due laurels. They’ve locked horns 29 times, all told, and matchup “XXIX” (to use Roman numerals) deserves to be thought of as the best battle of the whole bunch.
I won’t comment in overly great detail on the match, but it’s worth emphasizing one basic point in addition to everything you already know about the Djokovic kryptonite to Nadal’s major mojo: Forget the two-handed backhand down the line; the other, more outstanding feature of Djokovic’s game – abundantly evident in this U.S. Open final – was that it demanded Nadal to hit an extra ball. Think about that. It’s virtually impossible to refute. As Martina Navratilova said in her commentary on the Tennis Channel here in the United States, Djokovic was playing the match well within himself, while Rafa was pushing his limits. It’s true that Djokovic’s shots represent the perfect X-and-O counter to Rafa’s game, but it’s even more salient – at least in my mind – that Djokovic is able to be the more patient, conservative player against Nadal, the man whose ascendancy in tennis was built on defense and retrieval more than anyone else… until now, that is. Nadal used to be the player who outlasted everyone and could endure rally after long, grueling rally. Djokovic now possesses the mental toughness needed to hang with Rafa… not just in terms of pure defense or physical sturdiness, but in the clash of wills between two savage beasts (again, a compliment, not a criticism) who inwardly say as they take the court, “I’m going to outlast him and grind… him… down). Djokovic is the better grinder; he won a match that owned all the pugnacity and body blows of Ali-Frazier in 1974 in Zaire.
That’s what’s so remarkable about the 2011 season of Novak Djokovic and its thorough domination of Rafael Nadal. Mr. Parera had the kind of season mere mortals would kill for… and yet another man mashed him into so much fine powder, without fail.
It gives one pause.
You can prefer the way Roger Federer plays tennis, as opposed to the style of Mr. Djokovic and Mr. Nadal.
You can prefer the way Fed chooses to comport himself on the court between points, and the way he plays at a faster pace.
You can prefer the ways Fed celebrates and the values he stands for.
However, none of this should deny Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal the one thing that tennis fans are often unwilling to give to rival players: admiration. Rudyard Kipling and one of Fed’s best modern-day tennis fans, Andrew Burton – @burtonad on Twitter, you really must follow him – would agree.
Okay, Rafa and the Djoker have been given their space. We will now resume this broadcast of the Federer Doots Emergence Bwoadcasting System.
More hugs, hugs, and hugs to all you Fencers out there, still dealing with the pain.