The Barclay’s ATP World Tour Finals, Final Novak Djokovic def  Rafael Nadal 6-3, 6-4  Verdasco/Marrero def  Bryan/Bryan 7-5, 6-7 (3), 10-7
I know. It’s been awhile. And I’m sorry about that. But I did bring excuses. Some of them are even good ones. Others are distinctly less good-– such as, for instance, would you believe that a few days after the US Open final a convocation of eagles flew in through my office window and made off with my laptop? Or that in October a lamentation of swans invaded my living room and ate the TV? A bevy of larks broke in last week and took off with all my pens? Or, wait, here’s one: How about that I kept trying to watch Asian Swing tennis after work but the Tennis Channel was only showing matches from 2012? (Bingo!) See, a whole flock of excuses. But suffice it for now to say: I’m back, and just in time to say goodbye to another tennis season, to close the book on a heroic tale so many tennis fans fervently hope is only half-finished. That’s right — I’m talking about Fernando Verdasco’s doubles career.
The Spaniard and his compatriot, David Marrero, defeated the No. 1 ranked Bryan brothers 10-7 in the super tiebreak to claim the WTF beribboned doubles cup. The celebration and victory speech from the Spanish pair could hardly have been more emotional and touching, even by Verdasco’s extraverted, emoticoned standards. I only got home to my TV (a special swan-proof model) in time to see Verdasco win the final point of the match (a serve), and even without knowing anything about the dramatic arc of the match, I was immediately caught up in the exuberance of the moment. First, Verdasco fell joyfully to the ground. Then he got back up, leapt into his partner’s arms and hugged him with all four limbs before running to the sidelines to hug an entire century’s worth of Spaniards. Verdasco then wrote twelve stanzas of free verse poetry on the TV camera lens, and joined forces with Marrero—who became emotionally overcome while dedicating the victory to his late grandfather—to give the season’s most heartwarming acceptance speech. It was a lovely moment, and made me wish I’d seen the tennis that inspired it. (After the trophy presentation both men were stripped from the waist up, interviewed, and made to declare their intention to, first put clothes on, and then go eat Spanish food in South Kensington. Huzzah.)
I did, however, see all the points of the thirty-ninth chapter in the Nadal v. Djokovic rivalry. So far as tennis rivalries go, it’s hard to fathom how anybody could still argue against this one being among the very best. The pair has met fifteen times since 2011, and all but two of those encounters were tournament finals. (Both other meetings were semifinals: Roland Garros and Beijing in 2013. The match on the Paris clay was made of such high-quality drama that I wouldn’t be surprised if, going forward, it’s frequently misremembered as the tournament final.) Sure, the six-hour-long Australian Open final in 2012 could be accused of being a too-drawn-out slug-fest, but the rivalry has matured considerably over the past two years, with both players (and their ever-present support squads) devising new and more intricate ways to torture each other on the tennis court.
Unfortunately, no matter how good the rivalry, an individual tennis match tends not to soar to the outer-reaches of greatness when one half of the participants forgets to bring his forehand to the court. Novak Djokovic, ever the generous competitor, tried to make up for Rafael Nadal’s absentmindedness by playing super incredibly well from pretty much everywhere on the court, but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t quite compensate for Rafa’s missing forehand. (Even Djokovic isn’t quick enough to return his own serves.)
The world No. 2 held easily to open the match, then broke fairly easily, then held again. By the time we reached 3-0 in the opening set Novak had won 12 points to Nadal’s four, and Rafa’s game was looking as if his second serve might have run off with his forehand (probably to South Kensington to eat gambas al ajillo with Fernando). When Djokovic nearly broke the Spaniard again in the fourth game, the Serb decided he had to change tactics if there was any hope of elevating this edition of The Rivalry off the plywood floor. So, Djokovic started to make strange errors on his own forehand wing, and the backhand one, too. And it worked like a charm. Rafa held, and then broke back, and then held again.
By now—we’re at 3-3 in the first, in case you’ve lost count—Djokovic realized that if he went on smothering his forehand and forcing his backhand wide, he might actually not win the match, especially considering that Nadal had begun to play somewhat more assertively and that wary, feral gleam was now visible in the Spaniard’s eyes. Since losing the final of the Barclay’s ATP World Tour Finals would have been no good at all for Djokovic’s twenty-something match win streak (tennis players tend to prefer their streaks to their rivalries), he resumed playing incredibly well and quickly went back to winning the match.
The highlight of the day came on break point at 3-4 on Nadal’s serve. The point, which you must watch if you haven’t seen it, featured stunning movement and hands from both men. But it was Djokovic who hit the eye-popping lob and Djokovic who won the point, and therefore it was the Serb who was entitled to claim the bonus loot, aka “the manna of destiny.” In the next game, Nadal won a point almost as good to go up 30-15 on Djokovic’s serve—Rafa slammed a muscular forehand down-the-line and followed it up by a no-look jumping backhand volley winner—but Djokovic got a lucky net cord the very next point and therefore collected double manna, which he promptly cashed in for an ace on set point.
From there the Serb looked like he was made of stars, while Rafael Nadal kept on fending off break points like a man who refused to be forced to earth. (Nadal defended 8 of 11 break points, compared with Novak’s 2 of 3.) But despite Nadal’s best psychological efforts, and perhaps because of several forehand errors, Djokovic still managed to break early in the second set. It should be said that Rafa brought his full measure of grit to the contest—fighting off two championship points before sending one of his trademark forehands just wide on the third— but he simply did not have the game today, while Djokovic had more than plenty. The final score was a surprisingly straightforward 6-3, 6-4.
After the match, as I waited patiently for the ATP Steering Committee to take their places near the trophy table, and for a nice lady named Rebecca to walk the trophy out onto the court, I took a moment to reflect on the state of men’s tennis today. Yesterday’s WTF semifinals featured Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, and Stanislas Wawrinka. Federer has career 77 titles, Nadal has 60, Djokovic now has 41. The 27-year-old Wawrinka has collected four. Nadal eased by Federer in the first semifinal, despite being outplayed in throughout most of the first set. Wawrinka was psychologically overmatched from the start and didn’t offer Djokovic anything like the fight he showed in Australia or New York. And while I agree with Darren Cahill that Roger Federer is likely to have a better 2014 than his 2013, he is 32 years old. Who’s next?
Even if Nadal didn’t play anything like his best tennis today, both men belonged in the final ATP match of the year. They’ve been several cuts above the competition for the majority of the season. Nadal will finish the “most emotional season” he’s had as the No. 1 ranked player in the world. Djokovic will be right behind him, at No. 2, with a Major title to defend in two months’ time. As exciting as it’s going to be to watch and see where 2014 takes this rivalry, it’s hard to imagine who is going to be able to hang in there with these two. Healthy versions of Murray, Federer, and del Potro? Pierre-Hugues Herbert? Martin Alund? Whomever he is, he’s going to need to be very good at tennis, and even better at summoning destiny.
When Novak Djokovic accepted his WTF trophy, he thanked the London crowd for coming out all week to watch tennis. “Thank you for appreciating what we do,” he said. “It means a lot to us.” This isn’t the first time Djokovic has thanked a crowd for hanging in there through a tournament or a match. He has a way of sounding not only grateful, but also surprised that people turn up to watch him—one of the greatest tennis players in the game—play great tennis. Nadal and Djokovic will both take home more than a million dollars for their London efforts, but it’s still the human recognition that counts. That’s heartwarming. Not quite a Fernando-Verdasco-hug level heartwarming, but nice nonetheless.
It’s also why I would like somebody to tell Djokovic—and Rafa and the rest—that I have plans to fly all the way across the Pacific Ocean to turn up to watch them play tennis at the Australian Open. I’m sure it will mean a lot to them. It also means that I will be able to write to you all about it. And that means a lot to me.
Cover Photo (Creative Commons License): Marianne Bevis