I really hope you got to see this classic, ideally live. I have watched a lot of tennis in my day and this is truly one of the better matches I have ever seen. The match itself is a classic, but the reverberation for me comes, too, from the context, the careers and histories of these players, the state of the art – where we are at this point – along with my own hypotheses about the players and the sport.
Should I let my ideas simmer and find more light before I blog about the match? Perhaps. But I can’t. This is therapy. Actually, watching the match was therapy; this is reflection and celebration of a great battle that I, like any invested tennis fan, felt like I was involved in. Unbelievable.
Where do we begin. . .
Let’s think about a few other great matches.
One of my first tennis memories was the Borg v McEnroe Wimbledon 1980 final. As a huge Borg fan, even at 12 I was heavily invested and got a little hot under the collar. After being excused from the room once or twice to “cool off,” I was able to enjoy truly one of the greatest matches of all time.
Lendl, Becker, Edberg and Wilander, who seem an era unto themselves, have given me some great memories, and, more, Sampras, Agassi and Courier, too. The likes of Conners and Chang, even a run or two from a Rafter, Stich or Krajicek have homes on my tennis memory planet.
I particularly remember specific matches between Pete and McEnroe (1990 USO SF), Pete and Andre or Pete and Rafter.
More recently, Federer, interestingly enough, doesn’t seem to leave me with heavy classics; it’s more a body of work, I suppose. The 2005 USO final was against an older Andre and, sure, I enjoyed the Fed v Nadal rivalry, but those became a bit one-sided, no? I am not a particular fan of the 2008 WB final mainly because this was the beginning of the end of Roger, mentally. The fall of his mental fortitude is one of the reasons today’s Novak v Rafa Rome QF was so supreme a display of tennis. I’ll get to this later.
There were a few RG finals between Fed and Rafa that were quite good, but again, tough not to see that outcome as a foregone conclusion.
To give Roger some deserved props, the 2011 FO SF between Roger and Novak was a great match. Big upset by Roger: a match of very high level tennis that ended with the historic finger wave.
In 2015, parts of the WB and USO finals between Roger and Novak were tremendous as was the 2014 WB final between those two. Certainly the 2014 match was epic.
In 2015, Roger’s summer HC run was pretty special. His Cincinnati tournament was sensational. I thought the first set of that final with Novak was quite good, but Roger found separation in the second. What some of the Fed matches lack is this almost biblical battle of wills.
I purposefully left out the 2012 AO final between Nadal and Djokovic because that seems the best comparison for today’s Rome QF. That AO final was probably one of the better matches I have seen, ever.
Today consolidated that belief because these are probably the toughest competitors the sport has ever seen (but I will throw Pete in there, as well, who happens to be one of Novak’s biggest tennis idols).
Recall the 2012 AO final. Incredibly physical and courageous and clutch.
The 2016 Rome QF today was in that same vein of tremendous tennis played at such a high level though I think we might agree that Novak seemed to have short bursts of error-prone play. None the less, in whole, this was a classic.
Some highlights include Novak overall never in panic despite starting both sets a bit lackluster. Like he did seemingly against Robert in R1, Novak waits and then strikes when he needs to close the deal.
In the first set, down a break, he finally broke back at 4-4. In what has to be one of the most entertaining final few games, Djokovic breaking again at 6-5 was superb tennis. His flexibility and composure in those big games and points are second to none (sorry, Pete). Whether he needs to hold serve (critical vs Nadal) or come-up with the set-changing break, Novak delivered marvelously on this day.
Like Kyrgios in the R16, after securing a tough first set vs. the Spaniard, Novak dropped serve and was immediately down a break after Nadal held for 2-0.
To make a long story short, Nadal had 4 or 5 set points at 5-4. Novak would somehow save the point, and then seemingly give Nadal another shot at set point. Unreal stuff. When Djokovic finally got a BP, he converted on his first try. Wow.
That is the tale of this match. Djokovic was simply better in the big moments, like he usually is. Just ask Roger.
As the two reached the second set TB, I was at a loss that this could go another set. It was already over 2+ hours in duration. Another set would have been almost too much of a good thing. Go watch the match. The TB was just an incredible finish to two masters of clay, duking it out, defensive tennis at its finest, great drop shots, volleys, over-heads, DTL. . . for your eyes only: true tennis fan.
In summary, this is Nadal’s surface. Always has been. Seeing the Serb come into Nadal’s playground and beat him at his own game (tough, clutch tennis) was tremendous evidence for me of Novak’s historical form. Granted, Nadal is not the same as he was back in 2008, but he’s apparently in form and certainly had a shot at winning this match.
But the mental fortitude of Novak makes his case such a tough one to overcome. Roger’s numbers are incredible. We can and will turn-to numbers and statistics to determine greatness. I am not here to make any sort of claim as I really appreciate Roger and Pete’s legacies enormously.
At the same time, I got to watch this Rome QF live. The eye-test reigns supreme in my determination of greatness. Novak’s tennis today (despite whatever you want to say about the way he started both sets) was for the ages. The battle of will was thought provoking and difficult to articulate at the same time.
Says the eye-test: tough not to call Djokovic (one of) the best.