How do you beat this guy?
I’ll start this article by posting a snapshot of my comment earlier today on Tennis.com, about the then, upcoming Djokovic vs Nadal final, in Doha.
Everything – recent history, recent form, gut feeling, – told me Djokovic was most likely going to win this match. Nothing prepared me for the manner in which he would do it today.
This match was supposed to be different from their most recent tussle at the ATP World Tour Finals, last year. In that match, Djokovic had comfortable dispatched Nadal in straight sets. The score was 6 – 3, 6 – 3. Despite the slightly one sided nature of that match, there were a few reasons I thought that loss was not significant in anyway, looking forward.
To start with, the match was played indoors, Nadal’s worst surface and arguably, Djokovic’s best in recent years. Secondly, Nadal was just beginning to find his form after an abysmal season. I won’t be surprised if I wasn’t the only one who thought that the next time they met, it would be a firecracker of a match. Weren’t we wrong? Djokovic destroyed Nadal in a very comfortable 6 – 1, 6 – 2 final. Let’s slice this another way. He allowed Nadal, exactly half the number of games he won in London, late last year.
Watching this match, I couldn’t help but notice once more, just how unperturbed Djokovic looked throughout. His eyes never betrayed fear, doubt or worry. Instead, he exuded calm and focus, and it showed. His movement was akin to the smooth acceleration of a powerful Ferrari, and his shots were sublimely struck with depth, pace and angle. This quality never let up and Nadal for all his greatness, just couldn’t raise his game high enough to match Djokovic today, let alone beat him.
With the win over Nadal, Djokovic takes the lead in their fantastic rivalry, for the first time. It’s no surprise. If you’ve been watching tennis since 2011, you probably get the feeling that this was a long time coming. This begs the question, just how did Djokovic become the riddle that he is today? It’s no secret that the Serb went to great lengths to improve his physical conditioning. That singular move began to pay quick dividends for him, as he was able to tap into the full potential of his talent in ways his previous physical conditioning did not allow him before. But what has really raised Djokovic ahead of his great rivals, has been the subtle improvements he’s made to his game, particularly under the tutelage of Boris Becker. His serve has become a more potent set up shot and sometimes, a point ending shot in itself. This shot, put a lot of pressure on Nadal today. Remember, Djokovic’s return/break game is considered one of the best of all time. That means, going into a match against him, there’s already a lot of pressure to hold serve. Now there’s pressure to break serve. It really introduces a whole new set of challenges over the course of three to five sets.
The last two wrinkles Djokovic has carefully crafted into his game are the length of his strokes – particularly on the forehand side – and his net game. Djokovic has always been a very good base-liner, able to go toe-to-toe with Nadal since the beginning of their rivalry. But Djokovic had a go to weakness then. His forehand. It wasn’t necessarily weak, but it was the side that would gift a few errors or yield to a few winners. Over the last five years, that Forehand wing has slowly evolved into a potent weapon, capable of hitting with spin, finding acute cross court angles, and even flattening it down the line or with a bit of air for blistering winners. Then there’s Djokovic’s recent ability to stalk the net. At first he looked out of place in the forecourt, preferring to execute drop shots or drop volleys while at net. These days however, Djokovic naturally spins off well placed volleys and punches through drive volleys at net, reminiscent of his coach’s glory days.
So in essence, Djokovic, has gone more offensive, without losing any of the defensive gifts he’s always possessed. It’s a particularly lethal combination. There are no weaknesses to the entirety of his game. If Djokovic has another multiple slam year in 2016, a certain whisper of a question will start growing louder. Could he be tossed into the GOAT conversation? That is left to be seen but 2016 will definitely define a lot.
In one of the breath taking rallies between Djokovic and Nadal today, Nadal was at his most stubborn, defensive best. He strained and groaned, as he continually rifled back top spin missiles from Djokovic, that were landing splat on the baseline. It was your typical Nadalesque rally and if you were watching like me, you probably were holding your breath waiting for the Nadal shot that would turn that rally around. Instead Djokovic glided around his backhand and slapped a short ball away for a winner, at an acute angle. The crowd roared, and Djokovic pumped his fist in the air with the authority of a king.
How do you beat this guy?