Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Djokovic, Nadal, Chess and Pugilism

Chess and pugilism were two words that kept coming to mind as I watched Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal trade mammoth blows in yesterday's US Open final. Chess, because each shot in a rally represented  a minuscule step in a sequence that, if played with clairvoyance, would ultimately lead to an opportunity to gain an advantage in the point.

Yesterday the message was clear, as Djokovic and Nadal blanketed the court with alarming ease: This is not your mommy and daddy's tennis anymore.

At the elite level, today's tennis takes more patience, and consequently, more mental and physical prowess than ever before. A,B,C tennis has given way to a more sophisticated endeavor. What starts as chess morphs into boxing -- pure blow-by-blow brawling -- and back again, often several times before any given point can be won.

Yesterday, on Arthur Ashe Stadium, I believe we witnessed the tennis as a hybrid of boxing and chess metaphor more clearly than ever before. It was the writing of David Foster Wallace that first introduced me to the concept that tennis could be viewed as similar to boxing. I'll be honest and admit that I never fully grasped the boxing analogy -- until yesterday.

During Novak Djokovic's 6-2, 6-4. 6-7, 6-1 victory over Rafael Nadal, the tennis was so brutally physical, the points so long and the intensity so high, that it could only be viewed as combat. It was Road Warrior tennis, the tennis of the future, and as I watched these two gladiatorial antagonists look for ways to grind each other to the brink of exhaustion while simultaneously seeking whisker-thin opportunities to gain an upper hand, I couldn't help but be mesmerized.

It wasn't necessarily beautiful. It wasn't necessarily poetic. But man, was it eye-opening; it was limitless and scary, too.

There was a titanic struggle for the 3rd game of the second set that was difficult to watch. Finally, Djokovic won the game on his sixth break point, but not after 6 lung piercing rallies of 14 strokes or more, including back breaking rallies of 27, 21 and 21 strokes.

This was probably the turning point of the match for Djokovic, and not simply because he'd broken to get back on serve in the set. He'd also proved that he was ready, willing and able to beat Nadal at the very game that he has used to beat everybody else on tour for the last few years.

While Djokovic and Nadal are both fantastic at this tennis as a hybrid of boxing and chess thing, it was Djokovic who proved himself to be the true savant, because while Nadal appeared to be playing the same brand of swashbuckling tennis he always plays yesterday (and doing it quite well, mind you), Djokovic was far better at customizing his brand of chess to suit the vulnerabilities of Nadal.

Each shot that Djokovic hit had purpose. Like a true chess champion, Djokovic thinks not just of the next shot; he thinks of the next several, and where those might lead him. But he doesn't only think ahead. In the heat of the moment he executes each step in his multi-pronged movements with precision. He hits to Nadal's backhand not because he wants to get an error from Nadal, but because he knows if he does it enough he will get a slightly shorter ball that he can be more aggressive with. It's amazing to watch, because while a lot of players probably dream of doing what Djokovic does against Nadal (he's won six straight finals, including two Grand Slam finals against the man), they don't possess a) the variety of shots to do it b) the consistency to do it c) the fitness to do it d) the ability to defend Nadal's gonzo ground game to even make it possible or e) the cojones.

I could go on and on, covering the alphabet several times. Djokovic has literally done the impossible in beating Nadal. Unfortunately for Nadal, he hasn't quite grasped the nature of Djokovic's game the way that the Serbian understands his. He tries to hit harder, be more confident, attack more, believe more -- and he does pretty damn well, too -- but in the end, he hasn't found a systemic crack in Djokovic's armor that he can exploit on a regular basis.

Meanwhile, Djokovic seems to know the types of replies his shots will elicit from Nadal. He thinks it through, and exhibits incredible patience all the while. He bides his time, exchanging mighty blows with one of the best of all time, and when he gets a ball that he can open up the court with, he declares himself the dominant one, taking control of the point and calmly rendering Nadal subservient.

I use the word "miracle" too much for things that are in reality quite routine. But anything I say about Djokovic's performance yesterday simply will not do it justice. His effort was miraculously good, and while he may have been lucky against Federer in the semis, in the final he eliminated the need for good fortune by being simply too good.

I know there have been more dominant performances in Grand Slam finals, and there probably have been more perfect matches played too. But given the stature of his opponent (and his desire to end this losing streak vs. Djokovic), and taking into account the incredible stamina that is required to put a plan like Djokovic's into action, I'd say his performance last night was one of the most remarkable I've ever seen.

Djokovic put the gloves on early, and exchanged punches with Nadal, one of the mightiest players that the game has ever seen. Djokovic put his thinking cap even earlier, and managed a sublime level of concentration throughout this bloody battle, even while taking some serious blows to the body all the while.

It was a convincing show of dominance, and it capped a year that could very likely go down as one of the greatest that tennis has ever seen.


  1. Nicely put about chess and pugilism (and what does Archie get if he's right?). Enjoyed this!

  2. Very well written. It was like a boxing match. More physical tennis is hard to come across.


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