What happened in that third set was this. Novak hit a 121 mph ace to give himself a 40-15 lead in the first game, followed up with a backhand return of return-of-serve into the net, then he tried to close the game by going to the net but twice Nadal, just inside the baseline, slammed the smash from the net right back at him and the second was the good one, making it deuce. A very long baseline rally followed that, once again, Nadal lost; he was making a habit of this, losing long baseline rallies, including the extraordinary 54-shot endurance contest in the second set that ended with a Nadal backhand into the net. You might have thought this was a turning point in the match, Djokovic fully warmed up and going into full iron man mode, the most unflappable defensive player in recent history. He closed out that second set at 6-3 and immediately broke Nadal in the next set, and here he was, fighting back against a rally to win the ad on a long rally after blowing his 40-15 lead. An ace followed, 2-0 in the third, Nadal down a break: truly falling behind, for the first time in the match.
Had Nadel lost the mo’? After a brilliant first set in which he seemed ready to storm through the match without giving Djokovic a chance, was the table turning, had it possibly already turned? That was the question. This is what 23,000 people sitting in an Ashe Stadium that was just beginning to feel the evening chill, summer’s end, autumn’s arrival — while the world no.’s one and two in professional tennis were sweating like pugilists on the court — that was their concern. Was the match turning decisively, or momentarily? Because with these two, there was a history of five-set matches that until the last few games went to one’s advantage, then to the other’s.
But there are these facts to consider: Nadal and Djokovic have met 36 times before this final in the waning light of Arthur Ashe stadium (see our man standing in the bleachers, the furrows of anticipation creasing his Brooklynite’s brows, the fancy Adidas jacket — this is not a placement ad — gift of his beloved daughter, unable to conceal the slumping shoulders of a man who has been sitting on his ass for a fortnight, unable to find the time to get in a few of his own on the great, poetic, beautiful renovated courts of Fort Greene Park off DeKalb Ave., and this is not a placement ad for the outstanding men and women of the NYC Parks & Rec dept., neither), and in these meets of champions, the man from Manacor, who is 27, bested the man from Belgrade, age 26, 21-15. They have twice in the finals at this revered stadium, due to have a retractable Teflon-covered roof within the next two years, a marvelous feat of engineering and architectural design and part of a costly gentrification of the entire Billie Jean King USTA National Tennis Center here at Flushing Meadows, Queens, half a billion clams but hey, it’s only money. Of these two meets, Nadal won the first, in 2010, and Djokovic the second, 2011, with the leading British player of today, Andy Murray, beating the defending champ last year, rather decisively come to think of it. Murray was bounced this year in the quarters by the second Swiss, Stanislaw Wawrinka, who very nearly beat Djokovic in the semis but could not find those final reserves to overcome a game leg in the fifth. In the other finals, Nadal beat the graceful, tenacious French champ Richard Gasquet in three, finding a neat solution to his elegant and powerful one-handed backhand, namely, do not hit to it.
Djokovic is a titan of the courts and he is having a splendid season. He has gone 50-8 this year, and this is his third final in the majors, which together comprise the classic Grand Slam of tennis. He took Australia, did not make it in France because Nadal beat him in five in the semis, crumbled — it must, cruel as it is, be said — before the mighty Murray at Wimbledon who thereby became the first man from Great Britain since the great Fred Perry, in 1936, to win the men’s championship at the All-England Lawn Tennis and Racquet Club, and I have to pause to ask you this: Does it matter that a Scot, not an Englishman, should be the Wimbledon champion? Damn straight. It serves those toffs right. The toffs blackballed Perry, who also won at Wimbledon in 1934 and 1935 and won the U.S. Nationals, as they then were, in 1933-34 and 1936, plus the two other major, due to his working-class background. He also led the British Davis Cup team, which dominated all rivals in the mid-1930s. Then as the years piled on and no Englishman could win, they kissed and made up. Perry, though he had moved to America, fought in our uniform (air force) in World War II, and lived happily in California, remained a patriot and a lover of his green and pleasant land and coached the Davis Cup team again and showed real class.
So where were we? With the last match at Flushing Meadows, it makes three finals in the year for Djokovic, the boy who practiced under American bombs in Belgrade, and does he hold it against us? Perhaps not. Why should he? Bombs over Germany many years before he was born did not prevent Boris Becker from playing and winning here. On which subject, it always bears repeating that if you want an example of bureaucratic obtuseness, it was the refusal of the U.S. State Department to grant Gottfried von Cramm, a great and respected opponent of Perry and our greatest player of those years, Don Budge, a visa after World War II, on the grounds he had been arrested and jailed. He had been arrested by the Gestapo on judeophilia and morals charges and sentenced to jail by a Nazi court.
And as to bombs over Belgrade, notwithstanding the valor and bravery of our pilots, that air war was ridiculous and arguably criminal. Not, mind, criminal in the human rights sense. There are no human rights in war, there is only the honor of arms, and there are no grounds to argue that our Air Force did not strictly follow the codes of air wars: narrow flight lanes, highly restricted targets — not that this would have reassured a 10-year-old boy — heightening the risk to our men. It is the honor of American warriors and their self-sacrificing respect for the rules of war that best guarantee the human rights or whatever you want to call them of the civilian populations which the enemies of our way of life use as shields and hostages.
No, I mean it was politically criminal, part of the chain of foreign policy blunders since the end of the Soviet Union and the decline of the communist menace, for which we can and must criticize our leaders, hold them accountable.
Djokovic has the best win record of the year on hard courts, but there is this: Nadal is on a remarkable 21 wins streak on hard courts, and it is remarkable because this is a man known as the clay court king, not the hard court king. Djokovic prefers hard to clay. There is considerable difference, at least at the pro level, between the two surfaces, as there is between both of them and the grass, the green grass of England and of the West Side Tennis Club at Forest Hills on which the U.S. Nationals were played in the long ago past, that is to say until 1977, but today, for today’s kids, for today’s newsmen, for today’s pols, for almost everyone today, the distant past began last week, if not yesterday. This is a serious problem of civilization. It is largely responsible for the unbearable blunders of our policy leaders. He who fails to study the past, yes, you know the cliché, but it happens to be one of these clichés that is true and it was written by one of America’s greatest thinkers and writers, so pay attention. These awful and terrible foreign policy blunders that our costing us billions and far more importantly the lives of so many of our best, they are largely due to our historical amnesia.
The USTA, which earns close to $100 million from the Open, does its part to correct this, it invited the great Australian champion Rod Laver to the court before this match started, toss the coin for the serve. It tries to interest spectators, the kids in its training programs, the general public, in the history of the sport, for example by pointing out that the Nationals date back to 1881 (baseball’s World Series: 1903). A few people know who Laver is; his being here will make a few more know. Australians fought at our side in Vietnam, as did Koreans: how many know this?
Because of his outstanding hard-court record during the recent American U.S. Open series, sponsored by Emirates Airlines, Nadal can win an additional million if we wins the final, which itself is worth $2,600,000. (Runner up, half that much, and so on down all the way to first round losers, $32,000 women the same; other pay schedules for doubles, etc.)
It is a lot of kale, but keep in mind that Djokovic and Nadal have substantial support staffs on their payroll, as do most of the top pros, coach, special consultant coach for the hard courts, trainer, nutritionist, what-all. Laver remarked with understated Aussie clarity that when he was in Djokovic’s and Nadal’s shoes — so to speak, because shoe technology has evolved with everything else and he wore the same battered canvas sneaks all season long or at least until they fell apart whereas today, well you know, you the reader, you yourself probably partake of the shoe-buying contemporary consumer-mania that subverts our stern Puritan ethic.
You worry — at least some observers do — whether, in sponsoring American tennis seasons, the Emirates Airline company, as well as American Express, Mercedes-Benz USA, Ralph Lauren, and many more superb private firms, are interested in good public relations or are they unwittingly contributing to the suffocation of the hard and lean American ethos of yore? But how is this going to contribute to a better world, which after all these fine companies contribute to in their own way and also profit from?
Without meaning to simplify the contemporary strategic situation, consider that in Laver’s time, when the man they called the Rocket traveled in buses with his mates and they coached one another in the evening after trying the beat the daylights out of each other on the courts during the day (as he remarked to a columnist at the Wall Street Journal), a few battalions of British grenadiers controlled the Gulf, making an inestimable contribution to peace and security in the world. But I am told we have made progress in international relations and friendship among the world’s peoples and tribes, just as the sport of tennis, and most other popular sports, has made progress in many important ways, such as better shoes and easier-to-use racquets and heightened nutritional awareness.
SO NOW TO RETURN to the third set, there was no doubt in the great fabled Ashe Stadium that the match could go either way. Correction: there are two individuals here who doubted it could go either way, because they both so fiercely believed it had to go their way. That is the mind set at this level. It was the mind set the previous evening, when American Serena Williams overcame fierce resistance from Viktoria Azarenka in a final marked by reversals and drama in the first two sets, following which Miss Williams seemed to say enough already, settled down, and demolished the only woman who gave her a real fight in this tournament, in singles that is, Miss Williams and her graceful sister, Venus, having been knocked out in the semis of the doubles by a pair of graceful Czechs, Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka.
No, neither man will concede anything.
Djokovic jumped to a 2-0 lead. Nadal got the break back in the 7th game, after which Djokovic held easily and it was 4-4, a two-game set maybe. The either-way dynamic persists, as Djokovic quickly gained a triple break point, during which few minutes Nadal tripped and fell backward while guarding his baseline and took a shot practically in the feet on the next point. But the next four points were his, including two steel-nerved rallies and a key ace at 30-40. Djokovic responded with a well-done lobbing drop shot, then hit long on the next point. No fooling now, Nadal set up a classic winner and smashed the ball into the open court. Next game, same story though with less drama, as Djokovic, on serve, jumped ahead by two points and watched in dismay as Nadal put in magnificent defense from the baseline against the Serb’s smashes and then got one past him, then nerved him out again in a long rally. 6-4, two sets to one.
Both men are famous for their comebacks. You might argue that all superior players are. In the classic they played at Roland Garros earlier this summer, they went set for set to the very end and at the end of the end it was 9-7. So that is what defines superior players. It is an understood fact of human action that no one, no business, no team, no nation, achieves success that does not learn from setbacks. This oft-repeated truth explains, in part, the great popularity of sports, the reason we love underdogs and hope for one last, or more than one last, hurrah for champions who are faltering. Actually, it is the reason Serena Williams is enjoying so much support; she has been on a stupendous road to renewed dominance of women’s tennis after slipping in the rankings, due to injuries and health issues that took her out of contention during much of 2011. But since beating Miss Azarenka in the 2012 U.S. Open final she has been unstoppable. Much sentiment was expressed in the past two weeks that Roger Federer, who has had a disappointing season and who lost in straight sets to Tommy Robredo — another great come-from-behinder — in the fourth round, might yet find a way to win one more major, if not two or three.
But this time it is not to be. Rafa is in control from now on. When, serving at 1-4 and with a quick 30-0 lead, Djokovic fails to hold on, making what for him are elementary baseline errors, it is clear he has, for once, conceded before the very last point. Nadal breaks with a charge at the net. Djokovic responds with a perfect backhand return of serve down the line on the first point of the 7th game, and it is well that his last point of the tournament should be such a fine one, but it is over.
As is the Open.