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.

I do.

You can prefer the way Fed chooses to comport himself on the court between points, and the way he plays at a faster pace.

I do.

You can prefer the ways Fed celebrates and the values he stands for.

I do.

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.

– Matt


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6 responses to “First Serb Percentage, Last Serb Standing (by Matt)”

  1. Ramesh Prabhu (@zbrain) says :

    Wonderful commentary as usual Mr. Zemek! It’s purely coincidental (or is it?) that you’ve written this post just as I finish up a heated dialogue with a friend comparing and contrasting the styles of Mr. peRFection and those of his rivals.

    It all started as my friend blurted out that the third set between Rafa and Novak was “the best display of athleticism & tennis” that he had ever seen. I wasn’t sure what it was that I was more flabbergasted about… the fact that he called it “the best” or the fact that he is a Fed fan calling it “the best”.

    More people joined the debate, and some called me blind, so blinded by the love that I have for McFudd that I failed to see these two guys for what they are, that I was disrespectful of them. My response… as a fan of the sport first and foremost, I do not disrespect these two. As appreciate as I am about what Rafa and Novak can do on a tennis court, expecting me, a Federer fan to “love” their brand of tennis is like expecting me to recreate the experience of driving a Ferrari… in a Pontaic Aztec… that just never happens!

    These two are great players, with fantastic skills and amazing temperament on a tennis court! However, there is a certain indescribable component to Roger’s game that raises the level of consciousness in those who watch him play. That’s something that I’ve never experienced watching anyone else play, in all the years (trust me, it’s quite a while) that I have watched tennis. So, in short… highest levels of admiration & respect… YES! Love? Needs to come from within, like it does for Fed 😉

  2. Marcoiac says :

    Love the consciousness link, @zbrain (aren’t we on twitter right now?) 🙂

    Yes, Fed’s game is the embodiment of the big C!

    And Matt, keep writing, it’s great stuff!

  3. Katarina_YYZ says :

    Thanks, Matt. I actually think some of ND/RN’s earlier battles in Masters finals were better, because both players were playing well throughout. In this last final, to me they both looked kind of “off” and error-prone in the first set. Sets 2 and 3 were good… Nadal was really on in the last half of set 3. But he was mostly off; bad serving, too many errors and pathetic returns of Novak’s girly 4th-set serve. Novak is in Nadal’s head, and it’s very telling, the result. I feel like many players “give up” against Nadal, not just because he makes the game physical with running, etc: it’s everything about his game, his demeanor, the delay of game, etc… he just sucks the life out of his opponents until they don’t wanna be there. When Roger plays “his game” and it’s on, he can roll past Nadal, but if his concentration slips (on it’s own or thru RN’s efforts), he loses the upper hand.

  4. moodyjude says :

    thanks for the analysis, I always enjoy an objective one. People who say it was the best tennis they have ever seen, I’m glad they enjoyed it. I also enjoyed it but to call it the best? pffftttttt. It’s like when I saw that video piece that JMac did for Rafa where he said that he would, if healthy, probably be the greatest ever.
    I wonder if he would still say that. Top guys who can beat each other make for an exciting time in the men’s game and I’m so glad Novak has a lopsided V over Rafa so I can stop hearing about the HtoH crap.

    I still can’t believe the Novak I saw in the SF and F is the same guy who retired b/c of a sore throat! I did want to see what fed would have done with his stronger backhand, except now I think his FH is a litte off.

  5. flo says :

    THis all stems from Djokovic’s improved stamina and fitness. Whereas last year he was the one pulling the trigger early, he was the one being patient this year. I think I was sold on him being a thorn on Nadal’s side in Miami and Indian Wells this year. THose matches came down to endurance and will and he outlasted Nadal in both matches. Once he passed that hurdle the only thing Nadal can do to gain the upper hand back was to take his athleticism to even greater heights or improve his backhand and serve. I think if he’s going to overtake Djokovic it’ll have to be the latter. Or if he can once again find a way to break down Djoko’s forehand.

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