Thursday 18 December 2014

Tennis: Big beasts clear field for another Grand finale

Simon Briggs

Published 09/09/2013 | 05:00

Novak Djokovic reacts during his epic semi-final win over Stanislas Wawrinka
Novak Djokovic reacts during his epic semi-final win over Stanislas Wawrinka

A tournament that belatedly came to life on Saturday with Stan Wawrinka's heroic assault on Mount Djokovic can now look forward to an intriguing finale tonight.

While most romantics were rooting for Wawrinka to upset the world No 1, his eventual defeat means that the two leading players of 2013 will contest the last Grand Slam of the year.

Rafael Nadal's record on hard courts this year has been mind-boggling: 22 matches, 22 wins. And this on a surface that he has always complained about because of the damage it inflicts on his irritable knees.

After the seven-month lay-off he took last year, which prompted many to write his epitaph as a Grand Slam contender, he has pulled off the most dramatic comeback since Gandalf. As for Djokovic, he arrived in New York with three titles this year and an overall record of 44-8.

There were a couple of sloppy moments on his way to the final: a set dropped to Mikhail Youzhny and a nervous early phase against Wawrinka when he could barely land his serve. But then, when he comes up against Nadal, you might as well toss the form-book away.

These two have locked antlers 36 times, the most encounters between any pair of males in the Open era, and their relationship has developed a compelling logic of its own. Logically speaking, there must have been some dull matches along the way... but it it difficult to recall any.

"It's a hard match to call, because Novak can flick a switch," Sky Sports commentator Barry Cowan said. "I remember at Wimbledon in 2011, I watched him struggle against Bernard Tomic in the quarter-final, and came close to writing him off. But then he got to the final and played like God to blow past Nadal in four sets."

The movie trailer plotlines would be complete if we could say that the world No 1 ranking were at stake. In fact, Djokovic will hold on, by a fingernail, even if he loses.

Realistically, though, he cannot afford to do so because Nadal – who is not defending any points for the rest of the season – would probably overtake him at the very next tournament.

Nadal's resurgence is connected to his sense of mortality, which he felt all the more keenly after those seven months at home.

In his autobiography, he predicted that he will not be happy once his career is finished, which is why he wants to eke every last drop of performance out of his body while he still can.

To this end, he has amended his playing style to be more assertive. He wants to keep the points shorter and save himself a significant amount of footslogging.

In practical terms, this means fewer attritional cross-court rallies and more use of what is perhaps the most venomous groundstroke in tennis – Nadal's booming, dipping forehand down the line.

In Montreal last month, this proved the key weapon in his semi-final victory over Djokovic. "Djokovic was a little bit surprised how much speed came from Rafa in that match," said Francis Roig, Nadal's part-time coach. "He was like: 'What happened here, is there something different with this guy?'"

There was indeed. As John McEnroe accurately observed last week: "The top guys are always figuring out ways to get one or two per cent better."

This is also true of Djokovic, whose new book 'Serve To Win' reveals a man hungry to realise every ounce of his potential.

MUMBO-JUMBO

Much of the text is devoted to his gluten-free diet, which he credits with his transformation from Grand Slam nearly-man to tennis' top dog. Some of his ideas might teeter dangerously close to being new-age mumbo-jumbo, but at least he is prepared to try new things.

A good example is the hiring of Wojtek Fibak, a Polish top-10 player from the 1970s who mentored the young Ivan Lendl, as his new assistant coach.

"Somebody else might have been happy with being No 1 and winning one Grand Slam this year," Fibak said. "But that is not up to his standard and he decided to include me in the team, to get some fresh ideas. I am sure in the back of his mind he would like to get back to the dominance he had in 2011."

A win today over the hottest player on the men's tour would be a good start. But first Djokovic will have to find the intensity he lacked in the Wimbledon final, where – as Fibak accurately observes – "he was leading all the sets but lost all the important points".

Andy Murray took his chances on that memorable Sunday, and Nadal will hope to follow suit today. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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