Sports Writer of the Year
James Lawton: Daring Djokovic gives game new dimension to leave rival bereft
The brilliant Serb gains just reward for taking risks and entering a zone of perfection
Monday 04 July 2011
Novak Djokovic will, it seems reasonable to say, always be one of those men destined to spend many of his days along the narrow line between joy and sorrow. But if this can be a hard existence it sometimes also brings a supreme reward.
It can give you the exhilaration that less extreme, impassioned characters will never know – and it can also bestow the kind of sublime experience Djokovic fashioned on the Centre Court yesterday when he not only beat Rafa Nadal, arguably the most ferociously committed tennis player the world has ever known, but at times seemed to be introducing him quite brutally to a new game.
The game that has brought Nadal 10 Grand Slam titles is wonderfully strong, filled with a passion that rejects out of hand the concept of defeat.
Yesterday, though, it foundered against a dimension that Djokovic sometimes inhabits uniquely even in the era he shares with such giants as the deposed champion Nadal and Roger Federer, who is generally agreed to be the greatest of all tennis players.
Nadal was simply broken apart by a quality of the 24-year-old Serb who this morning is officially installed as the world's number-one ranked player.
The honour comes from a year of astonishingly consistent play, one which brought a run of 43 victories – including four against Nadal – but its meaning inevitably shrivels against the reality of Djokovic's achievement when he won his third Grand Slam title 6-4, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3 in two hours, 29 minutes yesterday.
For many seasoned observers, the precise accomplishment was to go to the very borders of what has previously been considered possible on a tennis court.
All through the tournament he had shown evidence of his potential to occupy new terrain, to play shots from the most improbable angles, to volley his way into situations at the net which guaranteed the most spectacular, even surreal action.
In the second round, against the towering South African Kevin Anderson, he produced a passing shot so extraordinary that his celebration sent him flying into the air. On another occasion he pounded the baseline, shattering his racket in a fury that worryingly suggested the pressure of striving for tennis's greatest prize might have left him at least mildly unhinged.
Over the days his eyes have flashed with both ecstasy and the extremes of frustration and yesterday, even as he marched to what he described as his "most precious dream", there was still much turbulence. However, there was also a burst of perfect tennis that seemed to carry him into a zone which had a population of just one.
Nadal, who had produced much of his trademarked combativeness in the first set, that force which had so overwhelmed the nerve of Andy Murray last Friday evening, was reduced almost to the role of a spectator. The ground shots that can turn so many opponents into the consistency of tomato puree were contemptuously swatted away by the champion-elect.
There were so many moments when the Centre Court, filled with partisans of Nadal except for a few joyous Serbs who were last heard singing into the twilight, reeled and gasped, along with Nadal, at the scale of the brilliance. He hit the lines in a stream of virtuosity and nerve that tore apart the idea that thiswas a finely balanced duel between the world's two best players. It was that for a little while, and briefly it would become so again in the third set, but at the heart of the final we had a rout.
Later Nadal suggested that he didn't see much point in disputing the level of the challenge Djokovic had placed at his feet.
"Yes, thank you, I know," he said when it was pointed out that this was his fifth defeat at the hand of the Serb this year.
"Well," he added, "when one player beats you five times it is because my game doesn't bother him a lot. Today probably against me he's playing better than my level. I have to find solutions and that's what I have to try and that's what I'm gonna try.
"This year when I was healthy I only lost matches against him. When I was 100 per cent to play he beat me each time. The rest of the year I won almost every match. So I'm doing most of the things I have to do very well – except against him. That's what I have to change."
It is a huge project and a sense of the size of it could be read easily into the expression Nadal took from the Centre Court. The most gracious of losers, the man from Mallorca extended the usual courtesies to his conqueror – "I was against the best player in the world" – but yesterday the usual issues of winning and losing seemed to run a little more deeply.
This one involved not just a correction of some technical weaknesses but the very basis on which the game of today is played. As exemplified by Djokovic, it is a game of high risk, and high reward, and at its heart is the belief that who dares most consistently is likely to accumulate most success.
Daring, though, does not mean so much if it is not accompanied by the highest level of natural ability,something Djokovic has displayed with such regularity this year that it is not difficult to suspect a rising level of dismay among all his opponents.
Murray was so distraught after the beating he received from the new Wimbledon champion in Melbourne in the final of the Australian Open some close to him him feared that his spirit might be broken. Certainly he grasped that against a talent as bold as Djokovic's his old passivity would have to change. To have any chance, you simply had to join Novak Djokovic on the decisive edge of a more demanding game.
No one has ever charged Nadal with passivity or a loss of nerve but the bleak truth is that when he was swept to defeat in the fourth set it was largely on a tide of unforced errors. The forcing had come earlier, on the court and in the mind, from the man who later declared that he was born to win Wimbledon.
It is a presumption unlikely to be challenged for some time.
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