Monday, May 16, 2011

"Due campioni fantastici!"

First of all, let me tell you that I adored Lea Pericoli yesterday. She reminded me of my grandmother – the same meticulous fashion sense, the perfect make-up, the refusal to age, the measured speech, the adoration of the spotlight, and the sense of kill-her-dead she will die with her sex appeal intact never mind how old she is and how dare you ask. I enjoyed every aspect of Pericoli’s involvement in the closing ceremony yesterday as these two ‘campioni fantastici’ (her words) showed us what the new tennis looks like.

I know that some of you got turned off when I anointed Novak Djokovic a “great” tennis player some weeks ago. I stand by my assessment. And I say this as someone who has grown to respect Djokovic as a player. Just do a search on my blog and you will see the way I was ripping him apart just a year or so ago. I won’t repeat my criticism because that Djokovic no longer exists. And if he does, he has developed the emotional maturity to contain his foibles. He has grown into a fantastic champion, as acknowledged by Ms. Pericoli herself (the Kournikova of her day, minus the millions just for being pretty).

Yesterday was the 27th time that Nadal and Djokovic have faced each other on a tennis court. Rafa still has the edge in their head-to-head contests, with a 16:11 advantage over Djoko. So Pericoli was correct yesterday when she dubbed them both “two fantastic champions”. I take nothing away from Nadal for his recent losses to Djokovic. He is still a great champion. He will still be top seed at Roland Garros, deservedly so.

But while others are amazed by the length of Djokovic’s winning streak since the start of this year, I am far more impressed by the fact that he has beaten Nadal four times in a row. No one beats Rafa four times in a row. And no one beats Nadal on clay at two consecutive Masters events. Something has shifted in tennis, and it’s setting off a kind of emotional tsunami among fans and detractors alike.

More than anything else, Djokovic has exposed the predictability of Rafa’s game. This is not intended as an insult to Rafa. The simple truth is that up until now, few players (including Djoko himself), have had the strength in their backhand to withstand Rafa’s intense pounding lefty forehand topspin shots. Federer’s backhand would often break down under the pressure of Rafa’s lefty forehands. The player to dominate Rafael Nadal would necessarily have to be a player whose backhand was not only a weapon, but who could use it to defend his forehand and seize every opportunity to attack Rafa’s weaker backhand. And that’s what Djokovic has been doing, with increasing success.

But I don’t want to reduce Rafael Nadal to just having a weaker backhand. That would be an insult to this great champion. Because the truth is that most of all, Rafa got to greatness on the basis of his mental dominance. He comes out of the box running. He jumps up and down at the net during the toss. He runs eagerly to his bag to begin play. He is a pugilist in every sense of the word, and he wins through mental intimidation. In fact I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve heard observers comment that Rafa’s opponents don’t even try to beat him. They just pray not to get bagled.

But Djokovic has showed himself to be a mentally stronger player than I ever thought possible. Like Rafa, he has a keen sense of strategy. Unlike Murray (as I mentioned before), Djokovic has the ability to plan out his points several moves ahead. He does not only react to what is happening in the moment. Instead he manipulates and maneuvers. And if the moves he has predicted do not occur, well he is able to adjust rapidly, flexibly, beautifully. And that is the mental aspect of tennis that he has conquered.

Against any other player, Rafa would have won yesterday. Against Djokovic, Nadal showed his predictability of point construction. He keeps you running from side to side. He creates opportunities to open up his massive forehand. He hits moon-balls to give himself time to get back on to the court and prepare for the next response. He goes for the unexpected big first serve down the line. Against any other player, these tactical moves would have been brilliantly effective. Against Djokovic, they proved themselves to be not only predictable but also exploitable. Bottom line – I can’t wait for Roland Garros. Can you?

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