So much for my pep talk . . .

. . .Or: I sure nailed that one. This morning, I was somehow moved to sit down with my coffee and jot down the bona fide playbook, provide a sketch of the real map of this evening’s men’s U.S. Open Championship.

Excerpt (still warm from this morning’s printing press):

But what is likely to happen today if Djokovic’s steady workman-like tennis stonewalls the Swiss’ swell of court genius (form)? He will get loose with his shots, his unforced errors will prevail, Roger will sag and the Serb will straighten-up and advance, quite easily perhaps.

Roger has to borrow a page from Nadal or Djokovic (or Pete) with regards to his mental approach today (attitude). He will face tremendous pressure, have to handle big momentum shifts, etc. How he handles these mentally will be the key. Look beyond the brilliant shots, the SABR non-sense. . .

This attitude is the key (and again his current HC form that has developed since Cincy helps). Roger can’t be too at ease, too aware of his crowd endorsement, his history at the U.S. Open, his win at Cincy, etc. This is going to be a war and only his fierce attention to minor details, to every point, will enable him to hit those BH down-the-lines that assert lethal blows to his opponent’s game. What comes first, the chicken or the egg? Roger’s brilliant championship form or his championship mettle?

Damn.  I drink really strong coffee, so that might explain some of that, not to mention I spend a good chunk of my day talking, reading and writing about tennis (between job and family and extracurriculars).

This match HINGED on the difference between these players’ mental fortitude.  That simple.  The tennis was secondary. A quick recap of the tennis which clarifies what happened today as well as what will be written in the historical discourses regarding these mens’ games: Djokovic is as steady and efficient as cutting-edge war craft; stealth technology.  Federer dazzles and blitzes his opponents and his audience with a game that resembles art (he dazzles himself, too, which is a problem).  The tennis is comparable though most of us take Djoker in this five-set format because of his youth and consistency.  But that’s it.  In a 2 of 3, it’s more even probably.  That’s just a difference in style.  At 27 or 28 years of age, Roger’s tennis is a level or two tighter and more consistent than it is now.  The difference in this match was not going to be much in the way of swinging a racquet at a ball.

What separates these men, as I said this morning, is the mental game, the attitude.  The third set of tonight’s match is a perfect example of Nole’s insane mental strength and clutch, and Roger’s uncanny, bewildering ability to whiff in these incredibly pivotal points in a huge match (at least what we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in majors with Roger, especially vs. Novak).  I mean, holy shit.

Pick it up at about the 13:50 mark.  Roger is holding serve at love in the 7th game of this third set.  Remember, he’s just won the second set, finally, at 7-5, has evened the match, and he’s rolling right now.  Again, he holds serve at love to make it 4-3.  Then comes the most pivotal part of this match, the 8th game of the third set.  We’re at a set a piece and Roger is back in it, flying around the court, throwing a little SABR at Nole, hitting winners, serve is blowing-up, coming to the net, the momentum is all Rog: Fed Express ready to leave the station.

In the 8th, Roger goes down 0-40.  Whatever.  Djokovic serving.  One thinks this set is going deep, like the 2nd, pressure building, etc.  But then Roger battles from 0-40 to force deuce.  He has a look at 2 break points.  This is the match right here.  No doubt.  Roger fights back to force Nole to dig, to fight for his USO life.  If Federer converts one of these, he’s serving 5-3 for the 3rd set, to go 2-1 and then the Serb is, indeed, scrambling for his life.  That was it.  Roger can’t come-up with the critical winner, and Nole plays unreal pressure packed tennis and holds serve.  4-4.  Unreal.

What’s the first thing I say to my TV?  “He’s going to break Roger right here.”  That’s how this shit works.  That’s how Novak Djokovic works. He’s on the edge of a cliff, but pulls-off an amazing feat of clutch, breath-taking and flexibly balanced tennis genius (and Roger fails to deliver, to seize the match).  This was a no brainer.

In the 9th, Rog is serving 40-15.  Right on.  Go Rog.  But, of course, I was right.  I’ve seen this puppet show a million times.  Nole breaks to go 5-4 and serve for the set (game over); yes, he battles from 15-40 and breaks the guy with all of the momentum, which was sucked out of Arthur Ashe Stadium during that 8th game.  The hysteria doesn’t end there. Djokovic serving for the set in the 10th faces 2 more BP.  Roger has pushed him to 15-40.  Crowd is going crazy.  You know the story.  I think Roger saw 23 break chances on Novak’s serve.  He converted 3 or 4.

I will have a lot more to say about this.  A lot.  Watch the whole high-light reel, or toggle down to about 13:50 and there you have it.

13 thoughts on “So much for my pep talk . . .

  1. As astute, as usual Matt. If you’re trying to impress some people, you got me for one.

    In a sum: a crazy nerves first set (understandable from Djokovic who seemed overwhelmed by the situation) during which Federer didn’t execute his game plan at all (mostly rallying with Djokovic is not a considered plan for a sane person at the moment), and naturally lost to the more stable player. Federer could press more for that one, taking advantage of the situation and Djokovic’s fall-slight lapse in concentration.

    The rest of the sets showcased what you brilliantly underlined: mentality/clutch play decided the match. What you noticed in the third set seems to be a pattern in Djokerer matches: when Federer has a chance/invests much and doesn’t break Djokovic usually looses the next service game. Maybe he should let Djokovic serve first for a change, so he doesn’t have to defend his serve right away, have time to regroup. Apart from the BP statistic another one worth a look is the backhand stability -forehand unreliability (UE stat) ; the racquet works. But all in all as Federer said himself “I had my chances on my racquet. I should never been down in the score the way I was” = story of the recent Grand Slam meetings. Then again, I am slightly optimistic about Federer’s chances in the future: he now knows this (aggressive, low-percentage shots especially in receiving games for ex. BDTL) is the way to go to have a chance against Djokovic.

    To the victor, go the spoils: the clinical and now pretty confident Djokovic seems next to impossible to stop at present from grabbing 14+ Grand Slams. His dominance is unquestioned and there is none in sight to halt him, for 2-3 years excluding injury or an unexpected twist of fate. Then again, as you said “it’s the Djokovic era”.

    PS: Was the weather (humid), conditions (night match) and the long wait a factor for you?
    Also, I can’t understand why BHDTL from one handers (ex. Fed-Wawa) but not two handers (ex. Murray) rattle Djokovic’s game-your opinion please?
    Also, please state the brand/type of coffee you drink 😉 (just joking, of course).

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    • I’m not trying to impress but I would like people to know how seriously I follow and how I hope they feel encouraged to read my blog. But at the same time, writing that last post the morning of, basically saying this isn’t about tennis really (at this level – the final of a major, the two best in the world doing what they do) – it’s about handling pressure. . .I think was a good move on my part; I just wanted to clarify that point. If Roger doesn’t butcher the match (for instance, drop game one of the fourth because he’s probably still reeling from that disaster in the third and then drop another in the fourth, etc.), we probably go 5. No one can sit and watch and say ball-striking, serving, volleying, BH, etc., really favors Djokovic here. He’s more consistent, his return of serve is a nuclear bomb, sure. But this is pretty much a contest of mental agility and strength.

      Roger is too loose, too relaxed. Nadal ate him up over the years because he played like it was a street-fight, he was going to eat Roger’s children, so to speak. Nole has some of the that, only he’s a bit more refined. But he’s a serial killer as well.

      Roger at his best is an artist who can do things on the court no one else can. But on the big stage, against these kinds of killers, he’s toast. Look at the differences in their respective boxes. One looks like a Hollywood movie (beauty and elegance all over the seats); the other looks like some sort of Serbian or Slavic gang (ha!). You know what I mean.

      Novak is such a pleasure to watch because of his efficiency and overall incredible game. He needed this 10th, now. I heard someone say Roger needed this more than Djokovic. That is zero tennis intelligence. Novak consolidated and 2016 is quite simply Nole’s run for the record books. Can’t wait.

      Thanks again for reading, blackspy. Oh, I’ll get to those questions. Gotta go to work 😉

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      • I also think it was a good move, from your part, to write that one to showcase the critical point of the match. And, not to be misunderstood, I don’t consider you pompous or anything; I know of your high level of writing and objectivity and I’m becoming a loyal follower, as it seems-you are hitting your target pretty well. The common points with the Fedal rivalry you marked in your reply are very interesting (at the time the use of a sports psychologist for Federer had been suggested). Even Anderson admitted using a sports psychologist after his win over Murray.

        Take your time: I’ll wait patiently for the next excerpt from you (and some answers), as I have to work as well.

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    • The weather was not ideal. Wimbledon too had slower conditions from what I remember. And yes the wait probably adds to the difficulties for the 34 y.o. Faster conditions would have helped. Think back, djokovic wasn’t dominant. Which is almost more impressive.

      You’re saying Rog and Stan BHDTL are more imposing, right? Well, they’re genius, athletic, attacking shots…precise, more weight. The two hander, I’m sorry, is just not as classy. Thoughts?

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      • I’m saying that powerfull one-handed BHDTL shake Djiokovic’s game. I think it’s because one-handers a) usually take the ball on the rise b) step into the ball and they reduce the returner’s available response time. And Djokovic doesn’t like to be rushed (maybe it’s not just coincidence that most of defeats this year come from one-handers).

        In retrospect, Djokovic didn’t play a great tourney, nor a great final and the surface doesn’t help his rhythmic game (I’ll be surprised if he gets many more USO titles before he retires). Federer had the better game for the surface at the occasion, but the mental part was missing (some say he simply choked). Which again highlights Djokovic’s mental prowess and that he wins a lot of matches just by staying in them, cool and steady-he is not N1 for nothing.

        As of the future of one-handed backhand (“an elegant weapon for a more civilized time”- if you want my opinion on the aesthetic part compare a rapier to a two-handed bludgeon) I see 3 alternatives: a) Use it for the power game as Wawrinka, Thiem primary for BHDTL winners or wicked angled winners in slower surfaces, b) It returns when S&V resurfaces (volleying-net play advantages), c) It reappears as hybrid backhand. Hopefully we’ll see them all in due time!

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    • Yeah, I’m a huge fan of the one handed BH. It might be aesthetics for me, but it’s not a coincidence that some many of the greats used this shot (Fed, Pete, Stefan, Mac, Lendl, etc.). It’s a more dangerous shot (effect and risk). More athletic. You can see where Dimitrov and other youngsters might struggle – it’s higher risk tennis. With the equipment and the rise of defensive tennis, that looser athletically attacking tennis is vulnerable, perhaps.

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  2. Nice post Matt. I agree with you that it came down to mental fortitude – as it usually does in matches like this. So much pressure was Federer feeling that he just forgot to S&V in the third set and as you say, somehow shifted to the suicidal game plan of rallying with Novak from the baseline.

    One thing that Roger did do well was returning Novak’s second serve. I could feel it; every time Novak missed his first, he was a little fearful about how Roger would return his second.

    But Roger’s first serve deserted him often and the second really wasn’t up to his high standards.

    Novak was shaky as well, but on the big points he was rock solid.

    That said, I think everyone really needs to salute Federer for being the phenomenon that he is at 34. I really wanted him to win this, and I hope he can add another major to his burgeoning cabinet. But hr does not NEED it. His level of play itself is a monumental achievement at this point. He is raging against the dying of the light perhaps like no athlete ever has.

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    • Novak was definitely feeling the pressure on his 2nd serve. But having said all of that, Roger couldn’t win the points that mattered. Watching them play those long rallies was not a good sign for Rog. Against Stan he lived at the net. But Novak is not Stan.

      Roger saying to the crowd afterwords, “See you next year” is gold. He isn’t going anywhere. You could see this love of the game in Novak’s speech, something he’s gleaned from Roger. This is a nod to how great Roger has been and IS for the sport now.

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  3. Spot on, This match entirely won/lost in mental aspect of the game….No denying that…Everything else is secondary out there, court speed, ball speed, weather and much talked (by few) Crowd support….. Its not long ago Roger was in receiving end in same tournament and won…

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  4. Nice post, Matt.
    See things a bit different anyway.
    [What separates these men is the mental game, the attitude].
    The mental aspect is certainly huge, but not to be isolated in my view from the other variables of the equation that lead to lose or win a match.
    I admit I only saw the first set of this US Open final, the match being delayed and living in a very different time zone.
    But I saw enough to know that Federer was not going to win this contest with Djokovic, as I expected anyways.
    Roger came out of the blocks strongly, like he usually does when he feels good about his game. But it didn’t prevent him from having to fend off, right away in his first service game, several breakpoints.
    Djokovic for his part cruised through his first service game and didn’t lose a single point if my memory is right.
    And though Djokovic failed to capitalize on his three first break point opportunities, the tone was set in my perception, with Djokovic reminding Roger immediately who is the number one at the moment. And as far as I’m concerned, if not for that nasty fall in his second service game which he lost because of that fall, Djokovic would have won the first set by a double break.
    Is it a question of mere mental supremacy here ?
    Perhaps, perhaps not.
    Djokovic has always been a very difficult opponent for Roger, even in his hey days when he could still defeat him a bit more easily.
    Roger doesn’t get enough free points on his own service game against Novak, has a hard time to beat him in baseline rallies unless the surface suits him perfectly, and doesn’t have the stamina anymore to go the distance with Novak in long rallies without compromising his next services games.
    That’s in my opinion the underlying basis to the mental aspect: Roger can’t play the match on his own terms, and is obliged to pull the trigger too early, or make inroads to the net to finish the points, which is a very risky enterprise against a player like Novak.
    Therefore in my perception Novak is now to Roger what Rafa was before, a clear roadblock on his way to slam victories.

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  5. I think their tennis is comparable. This boiled down (as did Wimby 2015, as do most big matches like this) to a few key moments (the big points). At Wimbledon, if Roger consolidates the service break in the first, different story perhaps. The first set at the US Open, in terms of setting the tone by Djoker, that’s fine, but at the end of two it’s 1-1, moving to the pivotal 3rd set. So, though you may think Novak set a tone in the first, Roger was back on track by the end of the 2nd. As I outlined, he was poised to graban easy 3rd set win, going to the 4th 2-1.

    Let’s be honest. Novak’s form was not ideal. He played the big points spectacularly, but he looked more vulnerable than at, say, Wimbledon.

    I would say the mental was even a bigger issue with Nadal. His tennis is definitively subordinate to Roger’s. Period. But these players, Nole/Rafa, are simply warrior first. They don’t have Fed’s game. Really no one does, though I still think Pete at his best is a good argument.

    Roger is fine. He is enjoying himself (I hope 😉 He’s six years older than Djokovic. Ha. Think about that. This is all gravy, but I did hear he said he’s bummed to be losing all of these finals.

    It’s pretty difficult to watch a guy miss that many opportunities to powerfully affect the momentum in the match. That’s mental in my opinion.

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    • Thanks for replying.
      I enjoy reading your posts and will probably continue to do so.
      Couldn’t watch this video with highlights, as it gets blocked here in my country because of copyrights rules.

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      • Thanks, Wilfried. I’m glad you feel that way. I especially like the discussion between fans who care. You will see me clarify my points, but if I ever mushroom into some sort of biased baboon, shame on me. Let’s keep each other honest and tennis enthused. Cheers.

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