Watching Jiri move on clay, I couldn’t help but recall embattled tennis star, Maria Sharapova’s self deprecating description of herself on the same surface:
Like a cow on ice
If there was one word to describe his movement, it would be ‘clumsy’. He lumbers around the court, threatening to trip over his big 6’6″ frame at any moment. Rather than move, it feels like he is an assembly of parts all hurling themselves in different directions and yet miraculously achieving the effect of motion towards a common destination: the tennis ball. But when he’s on, combine that movement with the rest of his game, and he is ridiculously efficient. Don’t believe me? Just as Novak. He found out the hard way.
There were a combination of factors that led to what has become a very, very rare occurrence in tennis these days. A Novak Djokovic defeat. An interesting observation of mine was that not many of those factors had anything to do with Novak himself. In fact, I’d say there was only one and we’ll get to that in a bit.
When you really get down to it, Jiri simply took it to Novak. However, it’s not what you think. He didn’t try to blow him off the court, much like his fellow big guys are wont to do whenever they play and he didn’t try to out-rally him like Novak’s fellow movers try to. In both cases, he would have failed. Novak has – for the past five years or so – reinvented himself into the ultimate aggressive rallying machine. He does not do anything stupendously well, but he is solid all around and as such, there are no glaring weaknesses to get to. It is this reinvention that has made Novak so lethal to the likes of Nadal these days. He can out-rally the Spaniard in his sleep it seems. As for the Brit, he’s not gonna miss against him even if he is the more aggressive player. Jiri took a page out of Federer’s playbook against Novak. He quite literally flummoxed him.
Rhythm is the key to Novak’s game. He is at his imperious best when he is in control of the rallies, attacking and defending at will, and coming to net of his own volition. Take that out the window, and he is in a bit of a pickle. But this is Novak we are talking about here. He has been so good that even this game tactic only serves to frustrate him and maybe take a close set off him. What Jiri had, was the divine combination of power, depth and touch. Vesely’s shots have weight to them, much like Sampras’s serve did in his prime. As Patric McEnroe would say, there’s a bit of late movement to his shots. For any one of you club players like myself, if you’ve played against such an opponent, you know how difficult that can be to fend off. It almost feels like your opponent is pressing down on your racket strings with their palms and control goes out the window. While Djokovic is no club tennis player, neither is Jiri and it was evident that his weighty shots were throwing off Djokovic’s timing.
If that wasn’t enough, Jiri played with ridiculous depth as well. What’s more, he mixed it up with the occasional sharp angle here and there. Being a lefty, this was an even more problematic proposition for the one they call the Serbinator. Not only did he have to time his shots perfectly each and every time, he was stuck making half volleys off the baseline most of those times and couldn’t lay into his shots the way he so beautifully does. The result? Novak was perpetually on the defensive and this opened up the opportunity for Jiri’s final playing card.
The cat and mouse game is not one you would expect a giant like Jiri to repeatedly win against Novak. However that’s exactly what happened in this match, in part due to the elements listed above. He timed his drop shots to perfection, wrong footing the Serb or sending him scampering to make up the fore ground, over and over again. Djokovic’s claim of the second set, as insulting as it may seem, was almost a gift from Jiri due to a drop in his level. That’s how much this match was on the Czech’s racket.
As for Novak, he didn’t do much wrong other than not bring his A game from the start. Can you blame him? He hasn’t needed it to win in quite some time. His riddle has been good enough for the best out there. With Jiri’s blueprint an open secret, he might need to make that riddle, the best once more.