I had mixed feelings when I read recent news reports quoting Andre Agassi as saying that both Federer and Nadal are on the decline. Of course I gave Agassi the benefit of the doubt by assuming that he was only responding to questions asked by the media. But still I found his statement to be in slightly poor taste.
Probably because he was a member of the previous generation of dominant tennis players, I felt that Agassi should have had the sensitivity to remember his own hurtle down the rankings, as well as his subsequent re-ascent in 1998, at the ripe old age of 28. And I felt that these memories should have sealed his lips against commenting on the perceived decline of any current tennis player who is the same age now (or younger, in the case of Nadal) that Andre was when he clawed his way back into relevance.
So when Nadal made it to the finals of Shanghai, I wanted so much for him to prove Agassi wrong. (And I say this with much love because any man who could convince the goddess Steffi Graf to marry him, is aces in my book). And when I noted that Nadal’s opponent was going to be none other than Nicolay Davydenko, I admit that I became smug. El Matador was going to show the skinny one just who was boss. After all, on a good day Davydenko looks like he could be blown away by a strong puff of breeze.
So on Saturday, sticking to my routine when it comes to tennis, I popped a bag of organic popcorn, and planted myself in front of the Tennis Channel. Davydenko won the toss and confidently expressed his desire to receive serve. I wasn’t worried. I was too busy mentally criticizing his wife for dressing like a cast member from “Mad Men”. [Yes, I had to tune in to see what all the fuss was about. And yes it is an awesome show. But no male philanderer could possibly be better than Usain Bolt or Roger Federer. But clearly I digress].
Each player held in their first game. The level of tennis was high from the start. And then Davydenko broke Nadal in the third game. His strategy was fascinating. He kept playing balls to the Nadal forehand, and then suddenly, unexpectedly, he would blast a ball down the line to the Nadal backhand. Or he kept playing angled balls to the Nadal backhand, aiming not for the depth with which Nadal is comfortable, but for the kind of short angles mastered beautifully by Murray, but with far more pace, aggression, and dare I say, lethality.
Nadal seemed stunned. Worse, he did not seem to know what to do. It pains me to admit this, but Nadal did not ever seem to have an effective strategy to deploy against Davydenko. He played the same old same old. In fact, he started playing the kind of defensive moon balls that would have made Conchita Martinez proud. And always, he played from behind. Even after he broke back to equalize in the first set, it took so much effort that you knew that the Russian still had the upper hand.
There was no stopping Davydenko in the second set. I didn’t think it was possible but he actually raised his game. And I don’t want to give the impression that Nadal did not fight. After all, he is El Matador; he does not go down without a fight. But it’s hard to fight when your game has been thoroughly deconstructed by a more intelligent player and you don’t seem to have the wherewithal to push through the shock.
What impressed me most about Davydenko was that he had a specific game plan about how he was going to beat Nadal. And then he proceeded to execute exactly what his prepared blueprint dictated. It was an execution for which Nadal had no answer.
When was the last time you saw Nadal give up on a ball instead of chasing it down? Honestly, I was shocked to see how many times this occurred in this match. And when was the last time you saw Nadal challenging match point? Truly, I felt sad for him. I found myself thinking for a moment that maybe, possibly, Agassi was right. I’ve always known that Nadal’s grinding style of play would come at a cost. I just didn’t expect to see him paying the price so soon.