Culture Magazine

Warrior Tennis

By Conroy @conroyandtheman
by Conroy

Warrior Tennis

Djokovic and Nadal weary after nearly six hours of play

Have we seen the limit of tennis? I mean, really, can the sport get anybetter? Much has already been written, deservedly, about the remarkable Australian Open final, won this past Sunday [1] by Novak Djokovic over RafaelNadal; a nearly six hour match – sixhours! – of energy-sapping intensity and dramatic competitive swings. Thisis just the latest, perhaps the ultimate culmination, in what is surely one ofthe glory times for the sport. We fans must count ourselves lucky that we getto watch three of the greatest players of all time – and yes, Djokovic has nowentered that discussion – battle in so many riveting matches on tennis’ biggeststages.
One startling statistic communicates the hegemony that Roger Federer,Rafael Nadal, and now Novak Djokovic have established over tennis: Sincethe 2005 French Open – the last seven years – they have won 27 of 28 grand slamtournaments [2].These three have and continue to demonstrate how far the bounds of excellencecan be pushed. But along with the brilliance and athleticism come thecompelling narratives that leave commentators (including this writer) searchingfor appropriate descriptions.
Tennis is often compared to other sports. Boxing is a favorite of theTV analyst types as players are described as landing “body blows” or going forthe “knockout”, or engaged in a “heavyweight struggle.” This analogy seemsfitting given the lonely one-on-one nature of tennis and more so as the sport hasgotten more physical. Tennis is also compared to a mental struggle, a kind ofhyper-kinetic chess, or as an ultimate test of men, a gladiator’s duel. Loftierstill are comparisons of today’s top players to Greek mythical heroes, meetingin dramatic epical battles [3]. The fact that tennis matches are commonlycompared to wars and battles [4] is a further expression of this perception.There may be hints of truth in these comparisons, but I think they misssomething essential, something that can only be understood by examining thedominance and defeat of each man.
The Rise of Roger Federer
Warrior Tennis
There will never be a perfect player, but by the end of 2003 the22-year-old Roger Federer had become what many believed to be the next closestthing. Watching Federer in his prime, as David Foster Wallace famously wrote [5], wasa religious experience. He was at once fast, graceful, and powerful. But thesewords don’t do him justice. He was more like the full embodiment of speed andgrace and power. His shot-making was beautiful and brutally effective. Hisintelligence was obvious from how he constructed points, to the shots he choseto play, to his uncanny ability to anticipate and read opponents. He was a virtuoso; he owned every shot in the book and used them inways no one had seen before. I’ll give you one of my favorite examples from themiddle of the tense fifth set of the 2007 Wimbledon Final against Nadal.
Federer leads three games to two and is ahead in Nadal’s service game0-15. Nadal, a lefty, hits a serve to Federer’s backhand, like he almost alwaysdoes in the ad (left side) court, and Federer slices a short return into themiddle of the court, forcing Nadal to come into the net. Nadal hits a forehandwith heavy topspin deep into Federer’s backhand corner and follows this shoteven closer to the net. Federer flicks a backhand to Nadal’s backhand side butabove the Spaniard’s head. Nadal hits the only real shot available, a backhandcrosscourt volley, and it’s good, bouncing low. But Federer has anticipated theshot and sprints along his baseline picking up the low ball and beating Nadalwith a perfectly measured forehand pass. Now it’s 0-30 and Nadal again hits aserve to Federer’s backhand, up the “T” (middle) in the deuce (right side)court. Federer hits a neutral backhand return back down the center of the courtto Nadal, who then hits a hard forehand to Federer’s forehand side. Nadal isanticipating a crosscourt forehand and has moved a couple of steps to his right.But instead Federer drills a deep, heavily top-spinned forehand into Nadal’sforehand corner. The ball is so well struck and such a surprise that even at afull gallop and stretch Nadal can’t reach it and it goes past him for anotherwinner. Two points later and it’s 15-40. Nadal hits a body serve that Federerfights off with a floating forehand to Nadal’s backhand side. Nadal backs-upand hits a hard forehand deep the Federer’s backhand. Federer hits a hardbackhand right back to Nadal who hits a backhand down the left (his right)sideline. Federer quickly scampers to the ball and hits a lofted backhand backtoward Nadal but deep, just inside Nadal’s baseline. Nadal is forced to retreatand hits a neutral forehand to Federer’s forehand, where Federer, still on hisbackhand side of the court, hits a hard forehand near the left (Nadal’s right)sideline. This shot foreces Nadal to hit a crosscourt backhand which Federeranticipates and moves quickly to his right across to the deuce side of thecourt, easily tracking it down and responding with a crosscourt forehand. Nadalhits a hard backhand into the center of the court that Federer counters with ahard low slice backhand that barely clears the net and forces Nadal to scramblejust to get to the ball. He’s forced to hit a short crosscourt forehand.Federer literally skips to his left and near his left sideline strikes agorgeous forehand smack onto the left sideline past Nadal for a winner and thedecisive break. These few critical points show Federer’s variety, intelligence,and wicked shot-making.
I can go on and on lauding his, well, magnificence, but seeing the realthing is better than reading about it, so check out these highlights. His gamehad (and still has) a genius, an originality and style and potency that canmake you shout out loud in amazement while watching alone from your livingroom. I’ve noted his feats in previous posts, but from the end of 2003 throughthe end of 2007 he won 11 grand slams (of 16 played), won over 93% of hismatches, and beat the other top players not named Nadal like a drum going 69-2against Top 10 opponents – all feats unparalleled in tennis history. But ifFederer was a tennis Superman there was definitely a kryptonite.
The Rise of Rafael Nadal
Federer made an interesting comment during the on-court interviewfollowing his 2007 Wimbledon win, stating that he was glad he won this matchbefore Nadal won them all. In the moment it was probably intended as acompliment and as admittance that the match was a close-run thing. Indeed itwas, and Federer’s remarks proved prescient, he hasn’t beaten Nadal in a grandslam match since (0-5).
Warrior Tennis
Not long after Federer began dominating tennis there came the meteoric riseof Rafael Nadal, a tennis phenom. Here was the rare player who rose to the upperechelon of the game as a teenager, winning his first grand slam, the 2005French Open, just after his 19th birthday; the first teen to do sosince a 19-year-old Pete Sampras won the 1990 U.S. Open. His game wasdistinguished by its pure physicality. Nadal was blurry fast, he could runforever without tiring, his forehand was hit with tremendous power and anunprecedented amount of topspin. He was also metronomic-ally consistent hitting thatforehand, and his strong two-handed backhand, shot after shot until, seeminglyinevitably, his opponents made an error or grew impatient and forced (andmissed) a risky shot. Add to that an unmatched competitive focus anddetermination – Nadal never takes a point off and never puts less than fulleffort into every exchange. This combination of skills and focus made himvirtually unbeatable on clay where he set a never-to-be-beaten record of 81consecutive match wins between 2005 and 2007. He beat Roger Federer in theFrench Open each year from 2005 through 2008, the last three in the final. The2006 and 2007 final loses were Federer’s only defeats at a grand slam in thoseyears. Why did Nadal give Federer, the perfect player, such trouble?
Pundits are quick to point to psychology. Nadal is in Federer’s headand the Swiss just doesn’t play his best against the relentless physical gameof the Spaniard. That thinking is only half right. The truth is, and after 27matches [6] is pretty well established, thatNadal’s game gives Federer trouble because of how their games match-up. Nadalis left-handed and he naturally hits his forehand to Federer’s (relatively)weaker backhand side. His high-bouncing heavy-topspin shots bounce high toFederer’s one-handed backhand. And eventually, shot-after-shot andrally-after-rally, Nadal will win more of those points than he loses. Thenthere is Nadal’s ability to slice his serves to Federer’s backhand which allowshim to earn cheap points or gain a winning position in rallies. Finally, histremendous speed requires Federer to hit extra shots, which often forceserrors.
Here’s a characteristic Nadal-Federer point from the 2008 French Openfinal [7].It is early in the third set, Nadal easily won the first two, and is already upa break and serving 40-30 to take a 2-0 lead. He slices a serve out wide toFederer’s backhand that Federer is forced to strike above his shoulder. Heactually hits a pretty good backhand near Nadal’s forehand corner, but Nadalresponds with another heavy topspin shot back to the same spot as his serve. Federeragain is forced to hit a backhand above his shoulder and it falls short in themiddle of the court. Nadal pounces on it and hits yet another heavy forehandinto Federer’s backhand corner. Federer hits a backhand into the center of thecourt and Nadal, now on top of the baseline and seeing Federer camped deepbehind his own backhand side hits a hard inside-out forehand for an easywinner. Game, set, and match. Imagine that scenario played over and over andyou’ll understand why Nadal boasts a 12-2 record against Federer on clay,including five wins against no losses in the French Open.
But Nadal rose from nuisance to nemesis when he adapted his game tosurfaces other than clay. The 2007 Wimbledon final put Federer on notice thatbeating Nadal anywhere at any time was going to be a challenge. Nadal puttremendous effort into becoming a genuine all-around player and that effort,manifested in a stronger serve, different court positioning, improvedvolleying, and generally more aggressive play bore fruit at the 2008 Wimbledonfinal; a true changing of the guard moment. In what was the best match manypeople (including this writer) had ever witnessed [8], Nadal and Federer battled fornearly five hours and through multiple rain delays. Nadal won the first twosets, Federer the next two, including saving two match points in the fourth set tie-breaker, before Nadal finally triumphed in deep twilight 9-7 in the fifth.Federer was no longer the best. He would go on to win four more grand slams(and counting?) after that loss [9], but he would lose to Nadal in the 2009Australian Open final, the 2011 French Open final, and just last week in ariveting, but in the end unsurprising Australian Open semi-final.
Federer’s accomplishments cast him as the best player of all time. Butagainst Nadal he is second-best. So does that mean Nadal’s athleticism beatsFederer’s shot-making; that Nadal’s stubborn style overwhelms Federer’svariety; that Nadal’s competiveness and focus triumph over Federer’sbrilliance? In this match-up, the answer to these questions is more often thannot, yes. And that fact is distressing to many Federer fans who are anguishedthat physicality and will can beat genius [10]. But at this top level, with playersseparated by very little, the fact that Nadal has a reliable, exploitableadvantage over his opponent gives him the edge. Federer clearly hates losing,and especially in big moments to Nadal, but he understands that Nadal’s game isa bad match for his own.
After Nadal had brushed past Federer into the No. 1 spot for the secondtime in 2010, he won three grand slams in a row and appeared on his way to along run at the top of the rankings and with a reasonable chance to challengeFederer’s all-time grand slam record. He beat Novak Djokovic to win the 2010U.S. Open, and the Serb seemed as impotent as everyone else against Nadal. Butsport is cyclical, and 2011 changed everything.
The Rise of Novak Djokovic
Warrior Tennis
For a long time it seemed thatNovak Djokovic was born under an unlucky star (assuming of course that a famous,rich, and successful athlete can ever be considered unlucky). He was forced tocompete against Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Despite obvious physical giftsand a fantastic, complete, all-around game, he seemed stuck as the third wheel,finishing behind the top pair for four straight years (2007-10). But startingin late 2010 he made some adjustments. He grew fitter [11] and fixed a few lingering flawsin his game. He also seemed to be imbued with new confidence and desire. As I wrote last spring, he convinced himself that he could compete with the top two.
Perhaps the “new” Novak Djokovic was most obviously on display in thefinal of the prestigious Miami tournament last April. Against Nadal, a man whohad won every big match they had ever played until the previous tournament twoweeks earlier in Indian Wells, he fought back through the heat and humidity totake the match to a third (final) set tie-breaker. By all expectations, Nadal,the big-match player, the paragon of fitness and will, would triumph. It didn’thappen. Djokovic won, the second of seven consecutive victories (and counting) overNadal. The best illustration of their new reality occurred late in the tie-breaker.
Djokovic leads 5 points to 2, two points from victory. Nadal slices a serveto Djokovic’s backhand, but that’s a strength of the Serb, as is his return ingeneral, and he hits a strong, deep, low return that Nadal is forced to slicewith his backhand crosscourt. Djokovic hits an angled forehand to Nadal’sbackhand side, to which Nadal can only hit a crosscourt backhand to Djokovic’sforehand. Djokovic hits an even more angled forehand to Nadal’s backhand, andNadal must reach far into his backhand corner to hit yet another backhand toDjokovic’s forehand.  Now with Nadal deepin his backhand corner, Djokovic changes the pattern and hits a forehand downthe left (his right) sideline for a clean, easy winner. After the point Nadalwas hunched over, he looked on the verge of being physically sick. Djokovic hadout-played and out-fitnessed Nadal.
Djokovic has won the last seven matches with Nadal and 10 of 12 goingback to the middle of 2009. Why does he prosper against the Spaniard when everyoneelse seems to struggle? Once again, the answer lies in the match-up. Nadal’s biggeststrength is his heavy top spin forehand to a right-hander’s backhand. Djokovicis untroubled by this shot because his two-handed backhand is the best in thegame and he can use it as a weapon against anyone. Nadal’s lefty slice serve ishard on right-handers, but Djokovic is the best returner in the world –something Nadal seemed awed by in his recent post-final press conference – and can constantly put pressure on his opponents.Nadal plays amazing defense and can run more shots down then most opponents.Djokovic is even faster than Nadal and can run just as many balls down, butfrom better positions on the court, which allows him to more easily turn defenseinto offense. Nadal’s fitness is intimidating and he can wear down most otheropponents. Djokovic, as demonstrated in Miami and again in the Australian Openfinal, is fitter than even Nadal. Djokovic has small but discernable advantagesover Nadal. It’s a good match-up for him.  
The Next Battle
Nadal’s relative mastery of Federer doesn’t undermine the legacy thatFederer has built over the last nine years, and Djokovic’s recent mastery ofNadal doesn’t change the fact that the Spaniard is one of the ten best (atleast) players of all time. Some commentators have questioned how Federer canbe considered the best of all time when he can’t beat his main rival, but now,the same question can be extended to Nadal. At this moment Djokovic appearsunbeatable. Who might come along to master Djokovic? When Federer and Djokovicplay it’s a 50/50 proposition. That’s because Federer’s game matches-up withDjokovic’s game better than Nadal’s does. We fans talk about battling andwarriors and the deep psychological drama that plays out in the trio’s matches,but really that’s just window dressing, inflated ideas grafted onto what arereally just interesting athletic match-ups.
Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic are each winners and champions, they arethe best of the best, and they play to win. In every match between them we seeinimical shot-making, tense points, often dramatic swings. And over the courseof three or four or five sets we see the player with the tiny advantage usuallywalk away the winner. Their matches mostly boil down to tennis, to who playedbetter. Not to abstract mental, or emotional, or psychological causes. And whenthe loser steps off the court they aren’t vanquished warriors, or fallenheroes. Their matches aren’t life or death and their flaws aren’t those of Greektragedies. They’re just disappointed competitors. That’s why the playersthemselves seem so confused by questions the veer away from the athleticcompetition itself.
We fans are free to describe tennis matches however we want, but obsessingover the winners and losers, why one players seems to always win and another tolose, and especially as we look for deeper symbolism far removed from menplaying a game, we risk missing the larger reality of this time: Federer,Nadal, and Djokovic have raised tennis to its highest expression. Some matches,like the 2008 Wimbledon final or this year’s Australian Open final, are soamazing that who won seems like a technicality.
At five games all in the fifth set of the Australian Open final, thematch still very much in the balance, I turned to my girlfriend and said in amix of excitement and exhaustion that I didn’t know how many more of these matches[12]I could take. Whatever else is said, these men are delivering to tennis fanseverything we could ever ask for. When and where will the next warrior tennisbe played?
---
NOTES:
[1] Technically Monday, since the Sunday evening match finished wellafter 1:30 AM on Monday morning, Melbourne time.
[2] The lone other winner was Juan Martin Del Potro who defeated RogerFederer to win the 2009 U.S. Open. It took him five sets and remains forFederer the one grand slam final that he admits he let slip away (although allcredit to Del Potro, he played a great match).
[3] Brian Philips did just this in a good post-Australian Open finalarticle (linked above), comparing the top men to the tragic warriors from the Illiad.
[4] I used just this symbolism in the first paragraph.
[5] This essay from just after the 2006 Wimbledon Final is perhaps thebest piece of tennis writing anyone will ever write (linked above).
[6] Nadal has won 18 of their 27 matches and 8 of 10 grand slammatches, including twice at the Australian Open and once at Wimbledon.
[7] Where Nadal annihilated Federer 6-1, 6-3, 6-0.
[8] Now rivaled for general drama and competitive sprit by the 2012Australian Open final.
[9] And regain the No. 1 ranking in 2009.
[10] Including this writer.
[11] Much has been noted about his gluten free diet, but over the lastyears he has seemed has shown both greater strength and stamina, which hints atmore than just changes to what he has been eating.
[12] Both men’s semi-finals were long, intense, dramatic matches aswell.

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