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The Good Ol’ Clay Country Boys

A complex rivalry is in full swing.

By 5.22.12

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There was not much to say about Rafael Nadal's revenge, except that to make it complete, as every observer noted, he must follow through in the next two big tournaments, in Paris and London. You could, if you wanted, agree with the crowd -- the herd or independent minds, in Harold Rosenberg's classic formulation -- except: except, no, in fact there was something to say, and it is this: you can harp on rivalries and revenges, what Nadal showed at Rome's Campionazzi Internazionali is that in tennis as in so much else, offense beats defense.

Because the truth is, Novak Djokovic's fantastic run last year, including winning seven finals against Nadal, was surely that, a fantastic run, one of the feats in the history of the sport. And he is No. 1 going into the Paris Open, and it is written nowhere that he is unlikely to retain that position going into the U.S. Open at season's end (that is, at the major season's end, before the Asian circuit and the Paris and London indoor Masters).

He is a fantastic player, who learned to fight and out-maneuver Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal both -- two champions at the peak of their games -- over the past two seasons. This took tremendous innovative skill and imagination. He was up against both a master chess player and a relentless hitter. Federer has so much court sense that he can catch anything and place it wherever he wants -- he plays the classic control-the-point game first analyzed by Bill Tilden. Nadal has so much passionate athleticism that he can and does run after everything and tries to hit it back a winner -- and more often than not succeeds.

With the rise of Nadal, about five years younger than Federer, it seemed in 2010 that the professional tour was set, for about five years, in an epic two-man rivalry. The incomparably fit Federer could carry on for about five years into his mid-thirties (as indeed he is doing), while the powerful but evidently more physically vulnerable Nadal (as shown by back and knee problems) could be expected to peak in his late 20s. Other great players of about their age, such as David Ferrer or Juan Martin del Potro or Andy Murray, Tomas Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, would be up there and sometimes block them from reaching a final, but basically, they would be like the Yankees and the Cards.

Novak Djokovic seemed to belong to that group of pretenders, and I do not recall anyone foreseeing (I will be happy to stand corrected) the consequence of the work he put into preparing for his breakout season. It was clear that he was immensely gifted, athletic, and driven, but so were all the others.

So what he did last year really was epic, and when he beat Nadal all through the clay season, you could not avoid the most grand comparisons: Laver, Gonzalez, Budge; further back, Lacoste, Tilden. True, Federer stopped him in a magnificent semi at the French Open, the crowning tournament of clay, but he roared right back with a brutal demolition of Nadal at Wimbledon, followed by an epic come-from-behind against Federer at the U.S. Open semis and another brutal win over Nadal in the final. At least at Melbourne, last January, the for-the-ages final match between these two, the longest in history, clearly could have gone either way. Once again, Djokovic fought from behind and overtook Nadal who, until the fifth set, looked to many observers the stronger player.

It was a fantastic run, and it will continue, but what we saw in the past weeks is that it cannot reasonably be expected to continue with quite this kind of continuity, if I may put it this way, or shall we say constancy. He will suffer defeats and he will have to share the glory and what was supposed to be a five-year two man supreme rivalry is almost surely going to be considerably more complex. While losing -- mind, losing in finals still makes you better than everybody, except one -- Nadal, it turns out, was also studying. It seems obvious now, of course, as hindsight always does, but what he was learning was that given the configuration of the opposition, he would be wise to concentrate on offense.

Djokovic's game is a remarkable defensive offense. That is to say, he wins by returning one more shot. To be sure, he does this with a lethality that against 90 percent of players would be indistinguishable from an offense-based game. But against masters of offense like Nadal and Federer, he banked on spoiling their game plans and flummoxing them with his indomitable resistance, seizing every opportunity they allowed to hit and run.

By the year's record so far, Roger has not yet figured out how to overcome this. Lack of power? Perhaps: though he was totally in charge of every set through Madrid and Rome until meeting Djokovic there, he just did not seem to have the killer shots (called winners) that would exhaust his opponent; on the contrary, he confessed to being tired at the end. Rafa did the opposite: he attacked aggressively, as he had at Monte Carlo. Unusual sight: Nole was caught off balance, scrambling, missing, falling behind the shot.

So with possession of Madrid and Rome, the old boys are back, the intruder pushed out? But they never left, and he is present as ever. It was as if the arms race suddenly was in disequilibrium last year and now that adjustments have been made, the balance is again even. Roger Federer took Madrid with an absolutely masterful display of strong nerve and brain. His rivals lost nasty matches, each against a compatriot (Fernando Verdasco and Janko Tipsarevic), unable to get their footing and their concentration on the difficult surface, a slippery blue clay that was supposed to aid visibility and ended up being a monumental distraction.

In this regard, it was satisfying to watch Serena Williams overcome her own strongly expressed dislike of the conditions ("like ice skating") and crush all comers for the Madrid title, as she had at Charleston. She withdrew on the way to the semis at Rome, however, and graciously let Li Na, the world's most famous Chinese, go against the defending champion Maria Sharapova, the world's most famous Russian, though she lives in Florida. The tall and pretty shrieker came from way behind and made the Masha-Nana match another classic.

With Djokovic and Nadal playing again on red clay, the Spaniard wanted to show he remains king on his own surface. The Serb perhaps felt, by corollary, that he had to do it again to prove it was real. But it was real, and they are both pretenders -- though Rafa owns the title -- and Paris is wide open.

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About the Author

Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.