(1) Djokovic d. (2) Nadal, 6-3, 6-4
Until yesterday, the only hard-court tournaments that Rafael Nadal hadn’t won this year were ones he didn’t enter. It doesn’t take much to mar a perfect record – just one loss to a rampant Novak Djokovic – though falling short of perfection hardly precludes greatness, and Nadal’s 2013 season is nothing if not great. It isn’t done with yet; weeks remain in which it can become greater still.
Consider this: Nadal has just reclaimed the No. 1 ranking despite accruing zero points at two Majors (Melbourne and Wimbledon), three Masters (Shanghai, Paris, and Miami), and the World Tour Finals. Staggering, indeed, and it suggests that the gap between him and his nearest rivals will widen to a chasm before it begins to close. Djokovic is already making the right noises about regaining the top spot, but he’ll need to win Shanghai, the World Tour Finals, and the Australian Open merely to maintain the points he has. Barring catastrophe or a precipitous waning of interest, Nadal will be No. 1 in the world for a long while yet.
Last week was Djokovic’s 101st at No. 1, which strands him one week short of Nadal at equal-eighth on the all-time list, though not for long. This week will be Nadal’s 103rd. (Next week will be his 104th. I think you grasp the sophisticated mathematics involved.) I do wonder how many men have lost the No. 1 ranking by winning a tournament, in the final defeating the very man who would supplant them. It cannot be that common. (Still, if it was going to happen, this would be the pair to manage it. They’ve now faced off something like fourteen thousand times. The ATP made a desultory effort to drum up some interest for yesterday’s final with yet another historical retrospective, but given that their previous encounter was a Major final, and that the new survey mostly reprised the last one, it was hard to get too worked up.)
Nor, however, is it particularly significant. Rankings are based on twelve months’ of results, not two hours’ worth, and Djokovic in Beijing is coming to feel like Djokovic in Melbourne. Just arriving there lofts his form into low orbit. There’s no shame at all in losing to him, no matter what you’re ranked. This week he looked better than he has since January, savaging Richard Gasquet in the semifinals, and comprehensively shutting Nadal out of the final. Much has rightly been made of his serving, which was superb. But his returning was typically accomplished – Nadal won twenty-five percent of points behind second serve in the first set – and his groundstrokes reflected a boldness that is unfortunately atypical in this rivalry. The swift, low bounce didn’t hurt.
Meanwhile, Nadal wasn’t overly convincing. Generous souls suggested he was experimenting with aspects of his game this week. Perhaps they’re right. He did take time to test just how far behind Fabio Fognini he could fall without looking in real peril of losing. It turned to be quite a long way: a set and 1/4. Conditions also did not favour him, though rather too much was made of this: conditions don’t favour most players most of the time. Whatever the cause, level-headed types had predicted Djokovic would take the final, though few predicted straight sets. The Serb has looked all tournament like he did in the second set of the US Open final, which is to say like the best hard-court player going around.
But in order to be ranked as the best player one must sustain it for longer than a set, or even a week. Djokovic hadn’t won a tournament since April, and was on borrowed time. Those level heads were correct this week, but they’ve also been predicting losses for Nadal all year, and so far none had gotten it right. Broken clocks have a better rate of success. To be fair Nadal’s losses have been as unpredictable as they’ve been rare, and as curious. Who realistically believed that the third man to defeat Nadal in a clay court final would be Horacio Zeballos, contesting his first tour final, outmuscling the Spaniard in a deciding set? Or that Nadal’s only loss on European clay would come in Monte Carlo in straight sets, the first of which was very nearly a bagel? Or that Steve Darcis would remove him from Wimbledon in the first round? Or that . . . Or that there wouldn’t be any others, and none on a hard court?
As much as the scarcity of the defeats, the comprehensiveness and plenitude of the victories have been telling. Nadal’s more ardent fans can fan themselves into orgasmic dread whenever he steps on court, and afterwards are eager to peddle the conceit that his victories are testament to an ineffable warrior spirit, but realistically there have been barely a handful of matches this year in which he has looked at all like losing. Mostly he wins because he’s better than everyone else. This is precisely as it should be for the world No. 1.