The 2013 US Open Men’s Final
 Rafael Nadal def.  Novak Djokovic 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1
From the perspective of a psychologist-Rafa-fan-tennis-blogger, there was not a lot wrong with the 2013 US Open men’s final. The trophy ceremony is another story, but the final itself was tremendous—Brobdingnagian, even. From Novak Djokovic’s perspective, the immense beauty of the match was likely diminished by the bevy of unforced errors that contributed to his losing. (The Serb made upwards of four-dozen.) But from where I sat—on a blue yoga ball in my living room —it was not only an exciting final, but also an instructive one. Over the course of nearly four hours, Nadal and Djokovic took turns revealing the frescoed ceiling of what is possible when preternatural talent meets application and deep-seated drive.
No, the trouble with this final, from my perspective, had nothing to do with the tennis. It was the desire the tennis instilled in me to quote novelists, in particularly, the urge to quote Ernest Hemingway— or as the Gulbis Clan would spell it, Ernests. The problem with quoting the Latvian No. 1’s approximate namesake is twofold. First, when the opportunity arises to connect tennis matches to the American Jazz Age—such opportunities are shockingly few and far between—I prefer to quote F. Scott (or even Zelda) Fitzgerald because they are, well, way jazzier than Ernie. Those two really knew how to make their adjectives sing. Second, and perhaps more important, I’ve already quoted this particular passage of Hemingway here once before.
Much like Novak Djokovic feeding balls to Nadal’s forehand, re-quoting famous authors is not a pattern I’m looking to fall into. Last week it was Borges, this week Hemingway. Who’s next, Carrie Bradshaw? (Yes, I am 99.9% percent sure I somehow linked Sex & the City to Nadal’s footwork. Or maybe it was David Ferrer’s calves.*) But the fact remains that when Rafael Nadal stole the third set out from under Djokovic’s racquet, and then executed a deep knee-bend accompanied by a lawnmower-style fist-pump, my first thought was a worry that he’d pulled a hamstring. (It was a fist-pump as awkward-looking as it was enthusiastic.) The second thing that popped into my head was Jake’s answer to Robert Cohn in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises: “Nobody lives their life all the way up except bull-fighters.” Whether or not the statement is accurate, the sentiment underneath it is true.
So, to continue in the storied tradition of assembling terminology from other sports into descriptive metaphors about tennis—e.g., boxing, horse racing, ballet, baseball, orienteering, hopscotch, glee club, etc.—this tennis match was a bull-fight. To keep the outcome in question as long as possible, Djokovic and Nadal took turns playing the roles of matador and bull. They traded-off between sets, or on the occasional change of ends. Once in awhile they even switched between individual points, one assumes so they’d have something to do while they waited for that annoying guy in the stands to stop lowing like a wounded herbivore. The 2013 final was a showy spectacle; as brutal as it was beautiful.
If you saw this tennis fight—maybe from the comfort of your own yoga ball, or even better, from a seat in the stands—you won’t soon forget it. And if you did not watch it, you should. But if you did see it and want to relive it, or if you couldn’t watch, maybe because you forgot what TV channel CBS occupies (I had some trouble with this myself last weekend) here’s how I saw it:
Nadal was extraordinarily dominant in the first set—100% torero. He served thoughtfully and forcefully, winning 80% of his first serves and nearly 60% of the second. The Mallorcan maintained his aggressive 2013 court positioning; sliced and passed with his backhand; and did all the standard damage, plus a little extra, with his forehand. When Rafa held for 4-2 John McEnroe said, “This first set is highly important, to put it mildly.” I agreed, mildly. Including yesterday’s match, Rafael Nadal is 152-3 when winning the first set at a major.
Of course, one of those three losses came to Novak Djokovic, on a hard court in Australia, in a match that lasted forty days and forty nights (or at least all the way through a California night). During yesterday’s surprisingly lopsided first set, it looked as if Djokovic was struggling mightily with the wind on Arthur Ashe Stadium, which is known intergalactically as the universe’s largest-ever sporting centrifuge. When Djokovic stretches for a backhand return out wide, or a forehand on the run, he looks like he travels through space and time. It’s uncanny eye-bending stuff. The Serb moves with marvelous quickness and his balance is fantastic, but his footwork can’t quite keep up with the rest of him. Nadal’s form is better there. So is Ferrer’s, for that matter. (Probably because of his calves.**)
Anyway, as Rafa closed out the first set 6-2, I start to wonder if the combined forces of Nadal’s aggression and Mother Nature’s breath were going to make quicker-than-expected work of this match. It was about that time that Djokovic began to find his footing and take the ritual steps that would transform him into a full-fledged tennis deity. It’s tempting to say the change hinged on the 54-shot rally on break point in the second set. It was a rally that included several pummeled forehands from Rafa, ended with Nadal netting a ball, and was immediately followed by Djokovic lifting his arms in triumph while the stadium erupted in applause. In reality, the change started early in the second set, and would require a few more games to solidify.
In fact, Nadal broke back immediately to put the set back on serve at 3-4. But then Djokovic broke back again, and Nadal found himself pushed well behind the baseline. The Serb won the second set convincingly, but it wasn’t actually until the beginning of the third set that Djokovic played his best tennis. It’s almost not enough to say he was unplayable, his shots—particularly his return of serve and his forehand crosscourt—were downright untouchable. On the other side of the net, Rafael Nadal hung his head, downtrodden. It was 2011 all over again.
At 1-1, 4-4, 0-40 on Nadal’s serve, Rafa-fans were experiencing some measure of distress (to put it mildly). Djokovic had won the first point of the game with a brilliant lob, and most all of the Serb’s returns were skimming the baseline. In the process of losing the second point of the game, after hitting a quality forehand that Nadal seemed to have expected to be a winner, Rafael Nadal stumbled on the baseline and went down—swinging. (He was truly trying to hit the tennis ball even as his rear-end hit the concrete.) The Spaniard looked wounded, but in soul more than body. I wondered if he would recover from the indignity of having to stand by helplessly as Djokovic turned the match on its head. I should have known better.
It’s both tempting and accurate to say that it was at the very moment when Rafa was down triple break point that he turned it all the way up. Nadal saved the first break point with a forehand winner, a better version of the shot that saw him to the seated position just minutes earlier. At 15-40 he slowed the rally to a snail’s pace by slicing his backhand until he drew the error from Djokovic. The third break point he saved with his first ace and fastest serve of the match, at 125 mph. Nadal eventually held with an overhead smashed so hard it bounced into the stands and flattened Edward Norton’s hairdo. Nadal went on to wrest the third set away from Djokovic’s deserving hands, then run away with the fourth, while Novak went back to making unhappy unforced errors.
The most pronounced moment of tension in the fourth set actually came from the stands, when the crowd was unable to shush itself before championship point. I didn’t have my stopwatch handy, but that had to be the most protracted collective “shhhhhhhh” in the record books. It was, I suspect, longer than the combined time CBS gave Nadal and Djokovic to thank their coaches and families. The match ended, fittingly, with an error from Djokovic.
Continuing on with his habit of flinging his body against every hard court he conquers, Rafael Nadal immediately stopped, dropped, and rolled—and cried. Nadal and Djokovic shared a warm hug at the net, and then Rafa went back to joyfully rolling around on the court. (Who can blame him? He really has been on fire this season. Rafa now owns 10,860 ranking points as compared with Novak Djokovic’s 10,980.) The trophy ceremony was awkward and rushed. Both Nadal and Djokovic did well to answer the question they should have been asked, rather than the one they were asked. There were also way too many American flags. It’s better not to dwell on it. Instead, I’ve prepared a poignant summation, replete with fitting quotations:
Last time I mentioned the Hemingway passage from The Sun Also Rises was in a post I wrote before the 2012 US Open. My intention had been to comfort dismayed Nadal fans. Hey, the sun also rises. Buck up, and whatnot. And see, I was right. A lot can change in twelve months’ time. With some trepidation—given my loyalties—I offer the same sentiment to Djokovic fans today. Novak Djokovic will probably be disappointed with this performance, particularly with his play in the first and fourth sets. But in watching both the men’s and women’s finals this year I was mostly struck by the shared capacity of this small group of extraordinary athletes. They fight.
The other Swiss, Stanislas Wawrinka, authored the most heartwarming storyline at this year’s US Open and I was disappointed not to have a chance to write more about him. I did watch, and cheer for him, and even found myself doing an air-punch fog-horn blast thing whenever he hit a booming backhand winner. (Which none of you saw, right?) So, I think it’s fitting if I let Stan have the last word. When it comes to Djokovic and Nadal—and Serena and Vika—they’re supremely good at tennis, that’s true. But when it comes to effort, will, and intent, they’re seriously “fucking strong.”
*In case you are wondering, I try to mention David Ferrer’s calves at least once per major tournament. His calf muscles happen to generate dozens upon dozens of Google searches (more even than the number of unforced errors Djokovic hit in the final) and I have decided they’re good for business.
~For those of you who do not live in the United States and were deprived of team-ESPN’s commentary, you might be interested to know that Brad Gilbert and Patrick McEnroe tirelessly interviewed each and every American football player who showed up in the stands to gain the best possible understanding of exactly which position Nadal should have played had he ever shown the slightest interest in playing American football. From what I can tell the verdict was split between “running back” and “he’s too f***ing small to play football.”
**See first footnote.