Tuesday 24 October 2017

Djokovic swaggers on to Nadal showdown

Oliver Brown

Novak Djokovic may be easy to admire, but is he easy to love? Roger Federer, with a disdainful curl of the lip, offered his unequivocal verdict as he surrendered his status as the 'King of New York' to the swaggering Serb.

It is no secret that Federer, model of inscrutability, finds Djokovic's on-court posturing difficult to abide. But nothing tested his patience quite so sorely as when his nemesis, at match-point down in their riveting five-set semi-final, stood up to his 108mph first serve and uncoiled himself in a blur for a winner.

Federer's rage was thinly disguised. "I never play that way," he said, with the defiance befitting a five-time US Open champion. "I believe hard work is going to pay off. So for me it is very hard to understand how you can play a shot like that on match point. You'll have to ask him."

We hardly needed to. Djokovic, aggravating Federer's wounds, stretched his arms wide to bathe in the acclaim that poured from every tier of Arthur Ashe Stadium.


Whereupon he won the next point, the next three games, and thus sealed quite the most rousing win of his astonishing season.

No wonder, once the handshake with Federer had been politely discharged, that he let out a guttural roar towards the players' box, thumping his chest like Tarzan on Gatorade. This victory not only extended Djokovic's win-loss record for the year to 63-2, but confirmed his capacity to dominate the game with maximum audacity.

Anything appears possible, not least the prospect of becoming only the fifth player in the Open era to win three Grand Slam titles in a year. Among this garlanded generation, the achievement is somewhat passe: Federer managed the feat three times in his pomp from 2004 to 2007, while Rafael Nadal ticked off three Slams in succession last year. How apt it would be if, in cementing his supremacy in the rankings, the man of the hour could beat them both.

The triple-slam club remains an august one: Jimmy Connors and Mats Wilander are the only two members distracting from the 'Roger and Rafa' show. To inscribe his name in their company, Djokovic must tonight engineer a route past Nadal. It was a task that eluded him 12 months ago, when the pair waged a brutal contest on the third Monday of another rain-afflicted tournament. Ever since, the balance of power has been titled on its axis.

Nadal cut a picture of dejection after his ill-fated Wimbledon final, struggling to comprehend how he could have lost five straight finals to Djokovic. The sequence of defeats -- also including Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid and Rome -- was unpalatable to such a perfectionist. But Djokovic has worked out how to match, even surpass, him for physical endurance.

While Nadal's forehands come fizzing over the net with vicious topspin, they are starting, ominously, to come back at him with interest. Djokovic is a tireless terrier, apparently capable of putting the most devilish ball back in play. During their Wimbledon duel, you sensed that Nadal could have bounced a smash into the Royal Box and still his bete noire had time to rip it back down the line.

"I know that I have a game that is good enough to win against him," Djokovic admitted. "I proved that this year on three different surfaces. I need to go out on the court believing."

Nadal was conscious that he had lost the psychological advantage. "He's obviously the favourite for the final. I know I have to do something better than the other matches to try to change the situation."

We can expect to see more than shuffling and short-tugging from Nadal. In his autobiography he explains that his meticulousness is a defence mechanism against nerves. And no man alive is better versed than Djokovic in puncturing his bubble. That much should again be clear tonight. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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