Over the past few months, we have witnessed and marveled at Novak Djokovic’s ridiculous streak which came erringly close to topple John McEnroe’s streak of 43 straight victories. We have wondered how the mentally-not-so-strong Djokovic became so adept at using his serve at a crucial moment, never seeming to miss while hitting a backhand from the baseline, not fading out in a crucial final set tie-breaker, and not even stuttering when playing the King of Clay at his favorite surface. The improved fitness was definitely a factor—he looked fresher than Rafael Nadal during the end of the third set tie-breaker in Miami, and that was when I thought was the turning point in their rivalry. So was the consistency of his serve, and his new-found forehand. The gluten-free diet has now become a fashionable term in the tennis fraternity.
Yes, those were all the reasons behind his success. But the biggest one of them all was confidence. The confidence gained after he saved two match points against Roger Federer at U.S. Open last year. And the confidence gained by leading a small nation to it’s maiden Davis Cup victory. And it was the same confidence that let him down today.
The first set began in the same fashion, as it did in Melbourne. A few tight nerves by both players, who finally settled down and produced some riveting stuff, arguably producing the best set of tennis we have had all year. But once Federer won the all-important first set in the tie-breaker—the reverse of what happened in Melbourne—Djokovic’s confidence took a hit.
Suddenly, the clay court became slippery, the conditions did not suit him, and the air became thin—he started breathing heavily. The mindset of the invincible was lost. The man was coming down to earth again. He cursed himself in Serbian, gave frustrated look towards his camp, threw the racket in the air …. It is such a fine line, confidence. It took him five months to get a feel of invincibility, and yet all it took was one hour and ten minutes of tennis from Federer to disturb it.
Of course, it was one hour and ten minutes of “special” tennis from Federer that did it. As much as Federer had underplayed his “role” in this historic event, he wanted this more than anybody. His body language never looked passive, as it has looked in many of his recent matches, there were roars of “kha-mons” after virtually every big point he won, and after victory, he pointed his index finger towards the camp the same way as he had done after winning Madrid in ’09. That time he went on to win two of his most important majors of his career. Not sure if he will go on to win this one or not, but he definitely reminded all of us of the statement he made after Melbourne, when he was asked him his era was over, “Lets talk again in six months.”
It took only five months. It was probably not what everybody predicted at the start of the tournament, probably not even a day before. And now it is hard to believe that we have not had a Federer-Nadal match up in a major for more than two years. In a way, it is a fitting finale between two players who both are looking for answers. Federer trying to find how much fight has been left within him—and based on today, it seems a lot. Nadal, trying to fix the huge dents formed in his impenetrable clay fortress. Nadal has usually held a huge upper hand in their matchups on clay, and we know what strategy he will employ on Sunday. It will be interesting to see what Federer tries to do. From today’s evidence, his backhand looked extremely solid against Novak’s two-hander, but Novak offered him pace, whereas Nadal will offer him spin. It will be fascinating.