Tonights US Open final between Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic is more than another round in the famous Grand Slam Final. It’s a change in style that poses a question, “Will men’s tennis have to change from now on to cope with the mental brutality of the top two players?” And all because of Nadal’s knees.
“This was tennis as an acceptable form of violence”
This already brilliant player has improved, according to Piers Newbery of BBC Sport, because he has to protect his knees. To do this he shortens the length of rallies with aggressive, pressurised tennis;
Watching him in the semi against Richard Gasquet I was struck by how intimidating he must be to face. This was tennis as an acceptable form of violence. It wasn’t that Gasquet couldn’t return each shot it was the unrelenting aggression that seemed to do for him. Shot after shot stretched Gasquet’s mental resilience until he went behind and then under. From the start of the third and final set he seemed to have accepted the inevitable and lost 6 – 2. Gasquet did not play badly, his back hand was superb and he broke Nadal’s serve in the second set but eventually the pressure told. As he said after the game;
I did not play a bad match, but it was three sets to zero
It’s all or nothing tennis, to play this style at this level you have to be on top of your game, as Nadal said, quoted by Newbery;
I think you can play aggressive when you are playing well, that’s the first and important thing … It’s true I’m trying to take the ball a little bit early, that I worked on my game to be a little bit more aggressive
I like this, ‘No Acceptable Reason to Fail’ here. He is totally focused on playing at the top of his game so that he can play this ‘acceptably violent’ style. This brings an added intensity to his game and focuses him internally. Such is the desire to play the perfect testing shot each time he has nothing else to think about, no extraneous thoughts can enter his head, just that shot, then the next one and so on. This internal focus, one of our ,‘Six Habits of Elite Athletes’, supports this game.
And I love the way his coach and uncle Toni Nadal, reinforces this focus with simple, no nonsense comments;
Sport is very simple, always … journalists, the media, the public think he should do this or this. For me, it’s so much easier. You should play good, nothing else. You should play very well. And when you want to beat Novak Djokovic, you should do all the things very well – a good serve, a good return, a good forehand.This is so simple. Sport is not for making philosophy or science. It’s easy – play very well
If there is one player who can match this brutality it’s Djokovic.
I have posted on Novak’s mental strength and the source of it many times. Still, Djoko acknowledges that Nadal is the favourite going into this game. The Spaniard leads the head-to-head 21-15 and has won five of his last six matches against Djokovic, including a dramatic semi-final victory at the French Open, after the Serb had won seven times in a row in 2011 and 2012.
Still, Djokovic has has his own strategy, ‘exhibition tennis’, a style he unleashes when he has nothing to lose. He gets any anger or frustration out of his system and then seemingly enjoys the stage and showing the world how one of the best players responds to pressure. Similar to Nadal he plays aggressively and for the margins with every stroke. As he goes into this game he probably knows he’ll have to start like this.
Not only does this make for a compelling US Open Grand Slam Final, it opens a gap between the top two in the world rankings and number three, Andy Murray. After losing the quarter final game to Stanislas Wawrinka he said, quoted on BBC Sport;
When you work hard for something for a lot of years, … it’s going to take a bit of time to really fire yourself up and get yourself training, you know, 110% … Physically, I played some extremely tough matches in that period. Mentally, as well, it was very challenging for me… the last few games of Wimbledon to you guys may not seem like much, but to me it was extremely challenging
This is not good enough, it is ‘An Acceptable Reason to Fail’. Neither Nadal or Djokovic would use such an excuse for a game or suffer a set back because of reaching a goal. More likely it would push them on which is why they are both capable of going on long winning runs. Just when we though Murray’s mental strength had grown, a new gulf has opened up between him and the top two.
And if anyone is going to close this gap, they are going to have to cope and match a mentally brutal style of tennis, perhaps we are witnessing another step up in the quality of mens tennis.
— Mark Sheasby (@marksheasby) September 9, 2013
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