Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Djokovic-Nadal: Was it Really That Good?

"A new definition of suffering," was the way that ESPN's Chris Fowler summed up the 5-hour and fifty-three-minute 2012 Australian Open final between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal that was part horror flick, part torture chamber, and part epic.

Some anointed the final as the "greatest ever" just minutes after Djokovic ripped his shirt off and flexed his sinewy muscles for all the world to see. Others, like me, demurred. Oh, yeah, the tennis was brilliant for spells, and the tension and drama was enough to make your skin crawl (we tennis fans love that, don't we?), but the match was also sloppy at times (according to stats 38% of points ended in unforced errors, compared to 24% and 21% in their previous two Grand Slam finals), and as much as the robotic level of fitness elevated the collective opinion of what had transpired between Djokovic and Nadal, the sheer physicality of their battle also functioned as an anchor, pulling the level of tennis down with each passing hour.

The question that kept popping into my head as I watched the fourth and fifth sets transpire was: do we really want tennis to be like this?

To elaborate: Do we really want six-hour finals? Do we really want fitness to be a larger and larger part of the eventual outcome of Grand Slam events? Are the longest matches really the best matches? Are slower surfaces, co-poly strings, heavier balls, and ridiculously fit athletes dumbing down the sport?

If I sound negative, I don't mean to. I'm as invested in the modern era of tennis as the next guy -- and I'm as impressed with the tennis that Djokovic and Nadal played in the Australian Open final as the next wide-eyed enthusiast. Was I blown away? Sure. Hell yeah. But I also found myself longing for more diversity, more improvisation, more brevity.

I'll admit: I'm old-school and I worry about things. I dread the disappearance of the one-handed backhand, but the way that the modern topspinners can expose such players, it seems like the shot will eventually be nothing but a memory. I also dread the thought of full tennis matches where neither player hits an approach shot and comes to the net to knock off a volley winner. Solid net play still happens today, but less than ever before. You can't blame the players. Guys are just too good at passing nowadays.

But I digress. I'll stick to the script here and tell you how I really feel: I don't want to see Grand Slam finals where the outcome is decided by which player can endure the most suffering and keep his game together just enough to get him through. I don't want to see tennis become more like a triathlon or a Tour de France, and less like the succinct, artistic endeavor that it is supposed to be.

When our greatest match is also the most torturous, there's something wrong in my opinion. When elegance and precision is replaced by brute force, repetition and 40-second rests between points, we are headed in the wrong direction.

I'll not deny that Djokovic and Nadal's work of stunning and brutal combustion in the 2012 Australian Open final was one of the most remarkable Grand Slam finals I've ever seen. And yes, it has to be placed up there among the best in history, based on its pugilistic element and the suspense.

But to call this battle of attrition the best Grand Slam final of all-time would be, in my humble opinion, myopic.

Longest, yes. But best? I'm not so sure.


  1. I agree. I want to see the best tennis, not who can tough it out more. That said, it was a remarkable athletic achievement they showed us with tremendous court coverage and shot making. Perhaps Tomic will reintroduce change of pace and other lost tactics...if he stays out of trouble.
    Dojokivic's achievement of catapulting to the top of this current crop of excellent players shows fantastic dedication. For a while, I thought Nadal might eventually surpass Fed's number of Slams, then comes Dojo. I can't wait to see who pops up in the next few years to topple the cart once again.
    Great writing and observations; I enjoy your perspective and work.

  2. please, for a long long time, tennis was a astonished nonsport activity. have a look at roger federer. e wouldn t be able to play football even on a medicore level due to his shaky fitness and his ridiculous body. as tennis player, i always felt kind of shame watching federer's body... e looks lika a tennistourist. seeing two realt athlets like novak and rafa, i am now proud to be a tennis playser, a sportsman. forget diversity, more improvisation, touc and all this oldfashioned boring grandpa-stuff. we are entering a new level. tennis ic becomin sport.

  3. Great point about the evolution of tennis into something maybe not that great: I agree about the emphasis on over-fitness, & don't enjoy a marathon game. Wonder if it's possible to bring the game back to where it's about strategy & finesse? Nice, thoughtful post!

  4. don johnson: To claim that Federer has "shaky fitness" or that he "wouldn't be able to play football" is plain wrong. In his prime Federer was as fit or fitter than Nadal or Djokovic today -- without using their oxygen contraptions.

    In 2006, Federer played 97 matches without whining about schedule or fatigue -- that's 21 more matches than Djokovic played in 2011. In 2006 Rome Masters tournament, for example, Federer battled Nadal on clay 7-6(0), 6-7(5), 4-6, 6-2, 6-7(5) -- that's 353 points over 5 hours 5 mins (Nadal-Djokovic was 369 points in 5 hours 53 mins). Federer-Nadal's 305 minute match would have been as long as -- and was more athletically demanding than -- Djokovic-Nadal's 353 match since Federer takes less than half the time to start serving compared to Djokovic (both Nadal and Djokovic are the slowest players between points as they use the extra time to catch their breath and recover). Yet Federer not only won more points than Nadal, he even had two match points deep in the fifth set. What's impressive is that Federer played another 6 hours of tennis within 48 hours of his Sunday final as he had a long quarterfinal match on Friday with clay courter Nicholads Almagro and another long semifinal match on Saturday with World No. 3 David Nalbandian... yet Federer still showed up on Sunday to battle Nadal for over five hours.

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