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A Final Before the Final

It was labeled as “the final before the final,” and yet after an anti-climactic third set, it looked to be heading to mere sub-par semi-final territory. However, by the time Novak Djokovic sent a final forehand long to send Rafael Nadal into his eighth French Open final in nine appearances, the match had lived up to its billing, and then some. We’ve grown to expect this type of battles from Nadal and Djokovic — from unique tension and near unrivalled physicality, to the emotions and fist pumps. When these gladiators are done with their superhuman efforts, the viewer can almost share their exhaustion, delight, and heartbreak.

There is something so captivating about a five-set match of tennis. In many ways, it is akin to a tale of multiple plot twists unfolding before your eyes. The drama, tension, turning points, and missed opportunities are all staples that make these matches all the more memorable. However, from a pure tennis standpoint, the most fascinating parts of these epics are the strategies, tactics, and adjustments that each player makes over the course of the match. The extended nature of the contest makes these factors even more noticeable. Players have time to attempt different things, adjust, tweak their games, and adapt to each other’s adjustments.

For Djokovic, the approach to playing Nadal has always been fairly straightforward, at least since 2011. His game is better suited to deal with Nadal’s onslaught of forehands than any other player on tour. Djokovic dominates the cross-court exchanges, pins Nadal behind his backhand with spinning cross-court forehands, stretches him on his forehand side with hard, penetrating cross-court backhands, and puts pressure on most of the Spaniard’s service games with otherworldly returning. Moreover, Djokovic’s movement, defense, and counterpunching abilities have historically frustrated Nadal due to his inability to consistently hit through the Serb.

Since Djokovic began his spell of dominance over his rival a little over two years ago, Nadal has tried altering his game plan, to varying degrees of success. The pre-match tune for Nadal has always been the same: “I have to be aggressive with my forehand.”  And yet, he has generally struggled to consistently take control of the points with that particular shot, something Nadal usually makes a living off.

This time, however, things were different. The good news for the seven-time Roland Garros champion started with the weather forecast. Firday proved to be the hottest day of the tournament, which ought to have put a smile on Nadal’s face. His forehands would be having that much more bite, and jump that much higher off the court. In a game of inches, such minute factors could eventually make the difference. In many ways, they did.

It became evident very early that Nadal was in the mood, and his forehand looked like the kind of shot that made him the greatest clay courter this game has ever seen. For once, Djokovic’s backhand looked pedestrian, as he struggled to take Nadal’s cross-court forehand on the rise with the ease he’s usually accustomed to. The ball was exploding off the court, and as a result, Djokovic’s groundstrokes were uncharacteristically lacking in depth in the early going. Nadal adopted a more offensive court positioning, and gained the confidence to go for both his inside out forehand and down the line forehand earlier in the rallies. The latter, in particular, proved to be a game-changer throughout the match. In the seventh game of the first set, Nadal had a break point and went for a routine rally forehand down the line. It caught Djokovic by surprise. He was a touch slower to react, got to the ball a split second late, and pushed his subsequent forehand long. The tone was set.

These guys had played each other 34 times prior to yesterday’s match, and it’s safe to say they know what to expect from one another. Instinctively, Djokovic leans towards his backhand side when Nadal lines up a rally forehand, as it is where the majority of his lefty forehands go. Likewise, he is generally terrific at anticipating when Nadal will fire his forehand inside out after being in position to line up the shot. However, when the Spaniard directs his forehand at Djokovic’s own forehand early in the rally, it seems to catch the world number one off guard.

Djokovic’s retrieving abilities are quite superlative, but he defends better off his backhand, as far as getting the ball back with interest goes – he’s more likely to throw a slice or a defensive lob from his forehand side. Part of what Nadal has struggled with against Djokovic has been his inability to stay on top of the rallies. Novak’s counterpunching from his backhand side, in particular, has given his opponent fits, and it often changes the complexion of the rallies. By modifying his usual rally patterns, Nadal was able to reverse his fortunes. Eurosport’s Frew McMillan noted that any time Nadal authoritatively hit his forehand to Djokovic’s forehand, the rally was as good as over. For the first set and a half at least, that seemed to be the case.

It is never a confidence booster when your main weapon isn’t firing. For about an hour or so, that was the Serb’s main hindrance. His backhand was not adjusting to the dry conditions, he was unable to deal with Nadal’s forehand, and perhaps most surprisingly, his return was tame by his standards. As Djokovic later noted in the press conference, his opponent served better than usual, which partially explains Novak’s unusually iffy returning early in the match.

What makes the Djokovic match-up so difficult for Nadal is the fact that his normal game-plan plays right into his rival’s hands. He cannot be content to spin serves to Djokovic’s backhand like he does against Federer, and is forced to serve with more variation and power. Nadal did just that, and he was holding more comfortably than perhaps even he would have expected (winning over 50% of his second serve points is pretty telling). Again, the dry conditions could have only helped.

Meanwhile, Djokovic was also struggling to consistently pin Nadal behind his backhand. One of the main features of his game in this particular match-up is his ability to hit his cross-court forehand with extreme angles and take Nadal out of position to open up the court. To his credit, Nadal’s backhand held up extremely well throughout – he even quite surprisingly produced more winners than Djokovic from that side – and his willingness to hit his double handed backhand hard and flat cross court whenever he was stretched out paid dividends. He may have pushed it wide on a few occasions, but at least he sent a message to Djokovic that he wouldn’t be bullied. Nevertheless, that alone does not explain Novak’s failure to resort to a pattern that has given him so much success against his opponent in the past. Strategically, this was Djokovic’s only major flaw in the match, as even when he upped his level considerably, he still played far too many balls to Nadal’s forehand, and paid the price.

Luckily for the neutrals, whenever it looked like Nadal would run away with the match, Djokovic raised his game when it mattered most. Over the past two-and-a-half years, he truly has turned into one of the sport’s all-time greatest clutch players. When the chips are down, Djokovic hits his way out of trouble. After getting broken to go down 2-3 in the second set, the Serb did what he does best, and indeed, hit himself out of trouble. Suddenly, there was more spring to his steps – he had looked somewhat flat up until that point – and he wisely opted to run around his backhand more often, recognizing that his usual bread-and-butter was failing him. His inside out forehand clicked, and he began doing the majority of the dictating.

With the exception of the generally poor third set, Djokovic served extremely well throughout the contest. For most players, serving big and getting cheap points against Nadal is a must. Djokovic, however, recognizes his ability to go toe-to-toe with Nadal from the baseline, and relies on good service placement — as opposed to going for too much — to put himself in position to get the ascension in the rallies. His serving patterns were quite simple actually, as he simply went out wide on both ends of the court. His slider out wide on the deuce court continuously took Nadal out of position, while the Spaniard had equal difficulties dealing with the flatter serve to forehand on the ad court. Nadal’s one noticeable shortcoming in this match – and perhaps even in his career – was his inability, or at least unwillingness, to stand closer to the baseline when returning, even on second serves. He can get away with it against most on clay, but not when playing Djokovic, who is all too willing to give Nadal’s short returns the treatment they deserve.

After the first break of serve in the fourth set, it again looked like Nadal would emerge victorious with surprising ease, but once again, Djokovic had other plans. He stepped up his return game considerably, and finally went back to exploiting Nadal’s habit of leaning to his backhand side right after he serves. Djokovic exposes that like no other, and it was paying off. That, on top of some well-timed first serve returns right at Nadal’s shoelaces twice earned Djokovic a break back, the second of which with his opponent serving for the match. Momentum was on his side, and he capitalized by playing an extremely solid tiebreak, before taking advantage of Nadal’s lull to break him in the opening game of the deciding set.

For a while, it seemed like serving first in the fifth was detrimental to Nadal, as he was clearly feeling the disappointment of not closing out the match when he had the chance. A poor service game gave Djokovic the lead, but neither he nor anyone else thought the match would be over. In fact, in the press conference, Djokovic said he had “expected” Nadal’s comeback – a testament, if one was needed, to the level of respect he has for his rival.

We knew Nadal wouldn’t go away. His mental toughness, heart, and fighting spirit were never in doubt. Just how he would go on about “fighting” however, was the real question. Normally, he does it by tracking every ball down like his life depended on it.  In part, that is what he did. He was definitely moving better than his opponent in the deciding set. More impressively, he moved better than he did all tournament, after initially stating that he wasn’t happy with his movement. Crucially, however, Nadal didn’t rely on that. Taking a page out of Djokovic’s playbook, Nadal hit himself out of trouble. He rediscovered the feel on his down the line forehand, hit his cross-court backhand with more conviction, and played his best tennis of the match – or more accurately, his best tennis of the year. He made twice the amount of winners Djokovic did in that fifth set, and in the end came out a deserving winner.

From a mental perspective, Nadal always seemed the more relaxed of the two. In fact, his body language, while as determined as ever, looked a touch more subdued. It wasn’t the usual battle of fist pump oneupmanship, which in truth, was quite refreshing. Djokovic, on the other hand, looked inexplicably out of it in the third set after a bad call from the umpire, and was agitated at exactly the wrong moments in the fifth, once after touching the net before his volley bounced twice for a sure winner, and another time after demanding the courts to be watered. After an argument with the court supervisor, he played a costly poor service game and lost the match.

Nadal’s win was undoubtedly deserved, and he has done extremely well to defend his territory. Twice in as many years, he was able to stand firm against the biggest threat to his clay court dominance. He has now played Federer and Djokovic a combined 10 times at the French Open (five times each), and has amassed a 10-0 record. If winning seven titles, with a possibility of an eighth, wasn’t impressive enough, this statistic should really put things in perspective. The King of Clay, it seems, will sit on his throne for another year.

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About Samer Kadi

Samer Kadi is a staff writer with the Tennis Frontier regularly providing invaluable insights into the pro tours. He's also an accomplished writer in his other sporting love - Mixed Martial Arts. You can contact Samer via: broken_shoelace@tennisfrontier.com
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