The Twelfth Game

The level of this fight was actually pretty mediocre until the 12th round.

I mentioned in my last post, having just watched these legends square-off in two hugely even sets, that this was a classic. It was. What happened in the 12th of the first set eclipsed said mediocrity and inspired these fighters to continue to raise the level. Hence, my hyperbolic assessment of the match, as a whole.

Serving at 2-4 in the first, Djokovic seemed uninspired, but his visage gave nothing away, in typical superb Serbian expression. If he had lost this seventh game, who knows. He had to maintain the one break deficit. This game lasted over 11 minutes, a bit sloppy from both men, no panic from Novak, and in the end a huge missed opportunity for Rafa.

Again, Novak’s demeanor didn’t betray his struggling form. One might’ve seen a player not feeling the pressure to win Rome. RG is nine days away. Is he already comfortable with his clay? I think we know this to be a poor read of the #1 player in the world. He’s confident, standing on top of the sport, perhaps playing a rival he’s pretty confident he can beat.

Either way, Novak escapes this seventh game, almost luckily, Nadal hitting the top of the net at GP, ball landing wide.

Rafa serving 4-3. Novak surges to 40-0 and Nadal then fights back to deuce. Nadal reaches GP, but Novak’s return is huge, inside-out after side-stepping Rafa’s big serve out wide. Novak converts his BP and we’re even at 4-4.

Novak serving and still struggling. Very little rhythm, flow to the game. Game goes to 15-30, but Nadal still not playing very well either. Missed opportunities. Whether it’s the slop chop of the clay, or Nadal’s over-estimated “confidence,” he just can’t seem to overcome the sloppy Serb.

This ninth game gets to 40-30, Djokovic serving and we perhaps see the shot that awakens the dragon. Huge CC BH, deep and unhittable. 5-4 Djokovic.

More mis-hits from both. Djokovic continues to attempt the drop-shot, trying to find something, but this is a failed strategy. Nadal handles nearly every one flawlessly. Djokovic just getting by. Nadal holds and it’s 5-5.

Djokovic holds, so Nadal serves 5-6. This is the twelfth. Indeed, as far as this story goes, the clock strikes midnight. Nadal gets to 30-0; then an easy FH into the net, 30-15. Another big mis-hit and it’s 30-30. Nadal not looking very good.

But then the tennis, literally, deepens. Big rally, shots finding BL and Nadal lifts a perfect drop-shot that finishes the point. GP Nadal, looking to reach a TB. Another errant FH into the net from the Spaniard so it’s deuce. Another netted lefty FH, moves them to Djokovic set-point #1. Another great drop-shot from Nadal, deuce. Djokovic begins to feed on Nadal FH, deep and unreturnable gives Djokovic set-point #2. Again, deuce, but the tennis is clearly better, the rallies bigger, deeper, the players sensing the moment, Djokovic trying to finish and Nadal to survive.

Nadal serving 80% at this point, the level has arrived, the players are throwing and landing huge blows. Nadal survives another set-point and then we reach set-point #4 where we witness the rally of the year. Here it is:

These two have played more H2H than any other rivals in the history of the game. But you already know this. All of the numbers and language become superfluous compared to the tennis, what the eye feeds the brain, what the heart ultimately sees.

Nadal: “I feel lucky and unlucky at the same time, to be playing in the same era as [Novak].”

So, sure I overstated my enthusiasm a bit in that last post, but the 12th round was a solar eclipse that underscored the emotion of the entire match, the history, the build-up to RG in just over a week.

In light of all of the high end sporting competition going on right now (NBA playoffs, NHL playoffs, international soccer club and league tournaments), tennis, for me, stands above these other sports. Sure there are differences. But when we go to a TB in the second set and Paul Annacone says “Buckle-up,” and Novak is serving, no breaks, no television time-outs – let’s take this to the next level – one ought to realize this sport at this level is the way of the sporting warrior, a level of competitiveness and fitness par excellence.

9 comments

  1. Something is up with Novak, can’t figure it out.. scared? Burnt out? See the match with Kei today? What is your analysis?

    1. Hello Pb – I am about to write a Rome wrap and start the RG conversation today. Hopefully you can chime in then/there as well.

      I did not see the SF as I was on the road, but figure his play is similar to what we’ve been seeing: not very sharp but certainly good enough when it matters. After seeing the duration of the SF, I thought good grief he’s tired. As I will attempt to explain, the F result was best for him.

  2. Not scared … of anyone, IMHO. But somewhat burned out I think. Last year alone would be enough, but on top of matches against the Fraudulent Nadal and Kei Nishikori, he didn’t have enough left in the tank for Murray, who is one of the favorites in Paris now.

    1. I don’t see Murray as favorite but you’re right about the burn-out. Rome was final training for RG; he played a lot of tennis.

  3. As much as great QF, SF also not far behind…one of very tightest match in recent times..how small margin at this level…just one point in the end on outcome…

    1. I will watch as much of the SF as I can, but what makes the QF more important is the opponent. I don’t see Kei having the same threat in a five-setter, deep in the draw at RG. That’s just me, perhaps. I’m sure the SF looks a lot like the QF, but I’ll have a look.

      1. True Matt..Nothing to take away from QF quality/opponent..I also agree on your view on Kei..I was more referring to how smallest margins can be in this level….

  4. I have to congratulate you Matt (aside from one more streak of good articles-I enjoyed particularly “exposure” as I saw it as the follow-up of “my guilt”) for you readiness to recognize the value in a high-competitive tennis match even on clay, a surface you recently have frown upon.

    After all, the clay masters went according to script: Djokovic rules the ATP under normal circumstances, Murray and Nadal take advantage of his absence/lack of strength, Federer remains injured, Wawrinka out of form, Thiem not ready to make a dent, Nishikori reminded us his great groundstrokes but lacked a good finale.

    To sum up before RG:
    Djokovic remains the firm favorite; his supporters argue that he shouldn’t have played the loaded Rome draw since it was almost mission impossible and must have drained him even more. They may have a point since he didn’t seem playing close to 100% in Rome, and he reached the final to be finished off by Murray. Furthermore, all the matches of the last two years should have taken their toll on him; maybe he should look into his schedule again (did he have to play all 3 events after he captured Indian Wells/Miami?). Then again even at, say, 80% he did defeat Nadal and Nishikori who were playing their current best. If he starts dropping sets to Paris, Rome will come back and haunt him…

    Nadal’s level has improved enough, but his speed is lost for good. Without it, he has no weapons against an in-form Djokovic: his serve is there to exploit for the top Serb in critical points (0/5 set points on serve?) although his mental resilience seems to be back. I expect no different result should they meet in Paris, even if a greater battle has to be fought.

    Murray on the other hand is ready to follow on Nadal’s steps as a clay-court master. And not without reason: his forehand has much topspin on it (mediocre on hard – useful on clay) and at last he seems to use his power in the clay game. Last but not least, his serve has improved considerably. The cheap points he wins with it can make all the difference in the world against Djokovic; he pushed him hard in Madrid (that match could easily have gone the other way) and defeated him (albeit tired) convincingly in Rome. In my view, if he keeps that level, he is the N1 threat for Djokovic in RG – along with the Novak’s justifiable nervousness (with the exception of a Stanimal awakening).

    Chances(%) for each contender? Since the draw will be fairly consequential in the clay court Slam (where will Wawrinka, Nadal, Thiem, Nishikori fall?) I’ll save more predictions after Friday, waiting for your views too.

    1. Thanks, blackspy. As a life-long tennis fan I absolutely appreciate the clay, but I’m just trying to make a few things clear. When clay rewards players like Bruguera, Moya, Kuerten, et al., and HC and grass crowns the Sampras, Fed and Djokovic’s of the world, there’s just a bit of a cause-and-effect I think should be underscored.

      But of course I’ve enjoyed the clay. It’s part of the sport. You see my other sub-texted agenda built-in to that too, I hope.

      I am writing another post today looking to RG and agree with two of your points: Djokovic big favorite and draw is crucial.

What say you?