Rome Masters, Men’s Final
 Novak Djokovic def.  Rafael Nadal 4-6, 6-3, 6-3
“He would not flatter Neptune for his trident,
Or Jove for’s power to thunder. His heart’s his mouth:
What his breast forges, that his tongue must vent;
And, being angry, does forget that ever
He heard the name of death.”
Not for a moment did today’s final in Rome fail to command my attention. It felt, until almost the very finish, as if the match could have gone either way. It was—not unexpectedly, but nonetheless interestingly— less a game of inches or strategy, than it was one of fear and resolve. But, as raptly as the spectacle fixed my attention in the present, my thoughts couldn’t resist ranging back over the week of tennis in the Foro Italico to marvel at the processes by which both Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic made their way through their respective sides of the draw. The World Nos. 1 and 2 seemed to progress toward the final as if through a painstaking annealing process. From Simon to Youzhny, to Murray (what a match!) for Nadal; from Kohlschreiber to Ferrer, to Raonic for Djokovic—each match three-sets long— the tennis and passions of both men were heated and cooled, and eventually pounded into supreme toughness, seemingly in preparation for Sunday’s final battle.
This mid-match association of mine—to the effortful forging of the tools of tennis warfare—downed the mental drawbridge to an onslaught of martial metaphors. My mind was quickly conquered by hawkish language, as was my field of vision. (War metaphors are almost as dangerous to a sports-writer as getting lost on a sea of superlatives, or reveries about ballet.) Every winner off Novak Djokovic’s racquet suddenly looked like a bullet ricocheting off the dusty pitch of battle. Each time Rafa charged the net, head down, shoulders pulling forward, he became a human siege-engine. The Spaniard’s yellow Babolat racquet was no longer decorated with red-clay-colored stripes in a gimmicky marketing ploy to move merchandise. No, it dripped with the blood of his vanquished foes. The annoyed glance Djokovic shot a toddler (who had himself thrown an ill-timed tantrum behind the Serb’s baseline) became as awesome and terrible as Saturn’s devouring glare. I even imagined I could hear the stirring melody of “Chariots of Fire” rising with the sun over the Northern California hills. Clearly, I needed to clear my head.
Breakfast, I was sure, would do the trick.
So, armed with a butter knife—with eyes still fixed on the action on TV— I commenced slaughtering a bagel. Just as I was about to deliver the killing blow to my gluten-rich prey, and while Rafa returned serves from the way, way back, I was visited by a vision of Tom Hiddleston. He was clad as a battle-weary but triumphant Roman general. Now, it’s possible the British actor came to mind simply because any warm-blooded woman who enjoys an eloquent tough guy—regardless of whether he wields words or racquets—is likely to think of Tom Hiddleston at some point during the day, such as while attacking her breakfast. [In case you’ve not heard, Hiddleston has been conquering leading actor roles the way Nadal and Djokovic have been claiming ATP rankings points; that is to say, rapaciously.] But, frankly, it’s probably more to do with the martial metaphors that were on the march through the caffeinated neuronal tangles of my mind. Because last time I saw Tom Hiddleston he was putting on a masterful performance of the Roman general Coriolanus in Shakespeare’s tragedy of the same name—and now here he was again, dressed in his bloodied toga, watching me watch Roman tennis and chew on a sesame bagel from the Boogie-Woogie Bagel Boy. The synchronous significance of all but the Boogie-Woogie bagel could not be ignored (though the BWBB does make a quality bagel if you’re ever in the neighborhood).
It’d be an exaggeration to say that my vision of Coriolanus-slash-Tom-Hiddleston spoke to me. He didn’t. He just stood there in the cheerful morning sunshine, looking martial. But the visitation did remind me that I occasionally enjoy thieving lines from Shakespeare and reapplying them to tennis. Moreover, there is a passage from Coriolanus—and about Coriolanus—that makes a fitting description of the way both Nadal and Djokovic play tennis. Not only that, but it makes a suitably heroic post title: “His heart’s his mouth.” His body is his soul. His game is unfiltered. For better and for worse, nothing is held back.
Thus did my Hiddlestonian Vision make for a relaxing moment in an otherwise tense morning of tennis-watching. Partly because Tom Hiddleston has a soothing gaze, but mostly because I was aware my quotation-inspired post heading would do equally well for whomever won the tournament. I had my title even if I did not yet know who had Rome’s.
At the start of this post I wrote that the outcome of Nadal and Djokovic’s 41st meeting turned more on fear and resolution than it did on strategy and execution, which isn’t to say that strategy and execution are unimportant. On the contrary, the strategy is everything— and nothing without execution. It’s just that both players know the strategy, and are fully capable of executing. Not a lot had changed since last time, or the time before last.* Therefore, today wasn’t as much about whose strategy broke his opponent’s game, but who flinched, and when—
Even in the first set—while Djokovic was still either tense or enervated (it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference with him) and Rafa’s game-plan was working fairly well, his deep shots drawing relatively easy errors from the Serb’s forehand—even then, there were signs of anxiety from Nadal. The kind of anxiety we’ve been seeing less and less of as we moved through the last two weeks, but that is still visible, especially in his small hesitations. For instance, when Nadal was serving up 4-1, but down a break point, he hit a good body serve and earned a weak reply. Instead of driving the ball at Djokovic’s forehand, which was at that point still wobbly, he hesitated and then settled on a rally ball to the Serb’s backhand. Djokovic promptly broke serve with an angled backhand winner. Rafa was still ahead in the match, but he still looked uncertain of himself, while Djokovic looked like he was just beginning to take heart.
In the second set, in the 2-3 game, Nadal handed Djokovic the break with a nervous double-fault. I know it was an especially nervous double-fault because it’s been text-validated. (As in, before he hit the second serve a fellow Rafa-fan and I crossed texts that formally announced our guy was about to “DF :(” We could feel it coming. This is the kind of highly scientific research I conduct on Sunday mornings after receiving visitations from celebrities dressed in togas.) Djokovic, who was by now playing pretty, and pretty fearless, tennis, took the break and ran with it, closing out the second set three games later with an ace.
But like I said, the Serb didn’t run away with the championship. Rafa was in the second and third sets until the end. By now you’ve probably read various technical accounts of the match, and know all about the importance of Nadal’s poor second serve stats and Djokovic’s improved forehand (which has been improved for quite some time as far as I can tell). However, the two moments I found most significant in the third set were—surprise, surprise—largely psychological. The first of the two arrived on Rafa’s serve at 1-3, 30-15, when he and Djokovic found themselves in cozy quarters near net after a let-cord, which had set up a relatively easy put-away for the Serb. This time it was Djokovic who hesitated. For a split-second his humanity—or maybe it was simply good manners— broke through the warrior casing. It looked almost as if the Serb felt he didn’t deserve to hit the winner. If it hadn’t been for the let-cord, Djokovic knew he wouldn’t have been in the position to win the point. So, instead of going at Nadal with the shot, he tried to lob. Rafa wasted no time in putting the ball away.
Indeed, the Spaniard used this hard-fought service hold to haul himself back into the final set. After winning game point, Nadal let out a tremendous fist-pumping bellow. At that moment his heart was in his mouth, and on his sleeve. (And Tom Hiddleston and I were up out of our seats clapping. Yes, Tom was still with me. I’d given him half my bagel.) Rafa followed the hold with an immediate break of serve. But—and I believe this was crucial—in the process of breaking, Rafa again found himself opposite Novak at the net. This time he had the easy ball to put away. Nadal could have passed Djokovic, but instead he went at him. The unspoken message—ordinarily one I’d favor—was that he would give no quarter. It was the move of a consummate warrior.
Unfortunately for Nadal, the lasting impact of his aggressive play was to make Djokovic just a little bit angry, and to remind the Serb that he was also a ruthless warrior, also meant to show no mercy—or, for that matter, fear. And from that point on, he didn’t. “And, being angry, does forget that ever He heard the name of death…” For the final three games of the match, Novak Djokovic was suitably heroic. He broke back immediately, and his two championship points were brought up with a service return that polished the baseline. He couldn’t have struck the ball more aggressively had he hit it with a battle axe. Then, after shaking the hand of his rival, the newly named Champion of Rome used his racquet to draw a massive heart in the clay. (No doubt Tom Hiddleston had visited him on a changeover.)
Rafael Nadal claims to be encouraged by his performance in the final, and I don’t have difficulty believing him. He usually means what he says. Sure, he won Madrid, but he played better in Rome. And if the past is any indication of the future, the types of niggling fears and hesitations that undermined Nadal in Rome are exactly the type of fears he most enjoys pummeling into oblivion. Should he and Djokovic meet again in the final at Roland Garros I wouldn’t call Nadal the favorite (that would be upsetting for him), but neither would I call him not the favorite.
As far as Djokovic is concerned, there was much to admire this week. His is a harder character to decipher than Nadal’s. Sometimes Djokovic seems like exactly the kind of guy who would flatter Neptune for his trident, or sweet talk Jove out of his thunder. But on court his ambition is easy to read. When he goes for his shots like he did today, when his game shows so much complexity in terms of pace and spin, it’s exciting to see. And there’s no questioning how hard he tries, even after the match is done.
The Rome trophy presentation was an oddly pieced together ceremony. The strangest aspect was probably that the winner was asked to give his speech before the runner-up spoke, but there was also an extended period of time before the talking bits when both men were left standing on stage with their trophies while a recording of “Chariots of Fire” really did play—maybe a few times over— in the background. It made for a long Kodak-moment that was more awkward than inspiring. Glancing almost cautiously around the stadium, and sensitive to the crowd vibe, Djokovic did a quick hip-shaking jig in time with the music. This is one of the best tennis players on earth, and he puts almost all his heart into his game—except for that little bit he reserves for our comic relief.
* For his part, Nadal needs to target Djokovic’s forehand, drive his own down the line, serve well and with variety, and stand somewhere in the approximate vicinity of the baseline. Novak Djokovic must pin Rafa to his forehand side, redirect his own backhand, return well, and take time from Nadal by flattening out his groundstrokes and going for winners early. It’s this element that gives Djokovic the strategic advantage. Nadal depends on taking his time (which might be why he gets so anxious serving in the face of Djokovic’s blistering returns). If the Serb is able to flatten out that acutely-angled crosscourt backhand as well as his signature shot down the line, Nadal has nowhere to hide, and, more importantly, no time to get there. Yet, despite this strategic advantage, Djokovic can still lose if Rafa plays close to his best (especially on the rare occasion when Rafa flattens out his own shots for winners, as he did at last year’s US Open).