INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – As Canadian Félix Auger-Aliassime warmed up the legs inside the big stadium at the BNP Paribas Open, you could play a guessing game as to who his practice opponent would be.
The 19-year-old is keeping pretty good company these days.
His sparring partner for the day was … none other than Rafael Nadal.
Nadal, who won the ATP Tour event in Acapulco nearly two weeks ago, comes into the BNP Paribas Open with a semifinal result to defend, as he tries to stay close to Novak Djokovic in the race for No. 1.
He’s 170 points behind at the moment. But Djokovic, who is unbeaten so far this season and has been playing some supreme tennis, only reached the third round here a year ago.
So Djokovic has just 45 points to defend; Nadal has 360.
Here’s what they looked like as they went through their paces in a stadium that won’t be this empty for long.
Looking in mid-season form
Normally, a week out from a big tournament, and adjusting to new conditions, Nadal typically doesn’t look all that great on the practice court.
But he looked really good on Friday. As though he’d be ready to jump in tomorrow.
As for Auger-Aliassime, who had a great streak during the European indoor winter season, he travelled to Acapulco as planned.
He did beat Alex Bolt in the first round there, probably still running on adrenaline. But the reality of all the tennis – and the long trip, and the jet lag – caught up to him in the second round against a fit Kyle Edmund.
Auger-Aliassime did pretty well in the desert a year ago. He defeated Cameron Norrie and then Stefanos Tsitsipas before going down in a heartbreaker against Yoshihito Nishioka – a third-set tiebreak.
This will be his third trip to Indian Wells. As a 17-year-old in 2018, Auger-Aliassime won two matches in qualifying to make the main draw. He then defeated countryman and friend Vasek Pospisil in the first round of the main draw (harkening several meetings to come in the intervening years, as it turned out).
Another Canadian, Milos Raonic, defeated him in the second round. But he had made his big splash at a top-tier event.
WIMBLEDON – It is a fact that the first of Friday’s men’s singles semifinals, between world No. 1 Novak Djokovic and world No. 22 Roberto Bautista Agut of Spain, is the forgotten story of the day.
Would it be different if, say, the defending champion were playing Juan Martin del Potro? Or if it were one of the young guns “finally breaking through?” Or even if anyone thought Bautista Agut had a shot?
Probably not materially.
It’s not equitable. But the biggest reason it’s relegated to the opening act is because of … the history.
Eleven years ago, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal played a final on this same court – into the night, almost into the dark. A book and a film were done about it. And it remains among the most iconic matches in tennis history.
It was also an incredible tennis match – extending over the afternoon and into the evening because of several rain interruptions. Those only added to the drama.
And so, the very fact that Federer and Nadal have not played in this hallowed venue since then – crazy thing, that – means that the buildup has been 11 years in the making.
And, of course, it’s Roger Federer at Wimbledon. He’s practically more “British” than an actual British champion.
First Wimbledon coverage
That 2008 edition was my first Wimbledon working as a journalist. And hey, you think it’s always going to be like that. Of course, it isn’t.
Mostly, it was a crazy day. The first memory I have is of the two finalists out on the practice court – when the first downpour of the day came.
It’s a funny memory, perhaps the opposite to what you’d expect of the two players. I remember both of them stopping the practice and hustling back to the locker room.
First came Nadal – annoyed with the rain, frantically draping a towel over his head to not get the hair too wet. Then, a few minutes later, came Federer. Despite the rain, Federer was just strolling down St. Mary’s Walk, unconcerned about the coiffure.
If felt like an insight into their mindsets before the big final. But in the end, it was more just a reflection of their personalities more than anything.
My memory of the cardigan is that after one delay, Federer warmed up with it on as they resumed play. But when he removed it, he didn’t unbutton it, as one would. He just pulled it over his head (not too gracefully, it should be said).
Last week, I spotted a fan walking around the grounds wearing “the” cardigan. The gold-trimmed piece of fashion that Federer sported.
I should have grabbed a photo of the fellow. But I confess it didn’t click that the cardigan meant … 2008, and the last meeting between these two, in this place.
At that point, the semifinals still seemed a long way away. And I have a tendency – just like many players claim as well – to take it round by round and not look ahead too much.
But it’s Friday, and here we are. They both made it.
Here are some of the photos I took back in 2008. They give you a better idea of how dark it really was, as compared to how it looked on television.
Federer made a few fashion statements at Wimbledon back in his Nike days. And seeing that big “RF” logo on the cardigan brings them back. There are still plenty of “RF”s on ballcaps when you walk around at tournaments. But these days no one talks much about what Federer is wearing. It’s dull as dishwater, and it doesn’t seem to matter.
In 2008, Nadal still wore the sleeveless tops, although the pirate pants had already gone in his gradual morphing into a model for Nike kits that people over 30 wouldn’t look silly in. All part of growing up.
So much has changed
If you look at the replay of that match, it’s amazing how much has changed.
The wear pattern on Centre Court back then still showed the efforts of players to transition to the net. That, sadly, has gone the way of the dodo bird.
But they both look so YOUNG.
That’s probably because they were young.
Nadal was still a boy of 22, baby-faced and earnest. Federer was just 26, having been through a four-year period where he practically beat everyone with one arm tied behind his back.
They both had more hair, even if it’s still basically the same color. For everyone around them, that has changed.
Nadal’s father Sebastian had unnaturally jet-black hair then. We wondered who he was kidding. These days, Sebastian’s hair is a beautiful snow-white. And he looks a whole lot better.
Federer coach Severin Luthi looked like a baby. Uncle Toni’s hair, then also jet black then, is speckled through with gray now.
And Gavin and Gwen – BFFS of the Federers – looked like a loving couple. Gwen, then 38, was expecting their second child – REALLY expecting their child. Zuma Nesta Rock was born little more than a month later. They have since long split.
(Okay, we do wonder occasionally who got custody of the Federers).
Bjorn Borg? Dammit, he looks even better now.
Will the tennis live up to the history?
What we do know is that Friday’s 40th meeting between Nadal and Federer won’t have the same drama and stunning backdrop that the 2008 final had.
The addition of the Centre Court roof the following year means that matches no longer have to fight the battle for daylight.
I remember so vividly all the flashes going off in Centre Court, with all of the lights from the scoreboards standing out. If you were watching on television, as the cameras open their apertures to the max, you couldn’t get a sense of how dark it really was.
And the last thing I remember was dashing over to No. 1 Court.
Because, believe it or not, as dark as it was on Centre Court – there was still a match going on over there.
The unheralded mixed doubles final, which pitted Bob Bryan (with Samantha Stosur) against Mike Bryan (with Katarina Srebotnik), finished much later than the singles final. Bob Bryan and Stosur won it, 7-5, 6-4.
It was so dark, you only hope that they handed the champions’ trophy to the right twin.
A former Player Council president and ATP Tour board member, the 58-year-old was moved to run for the soon-to-be-available spot on the board by recent events involving the current holder of that seat, Justin Gimelstob.
Tennis.Life spoke to Mayotte Monday, to sound him out about Gimelstob, the current state of the ATP, and what his priorities would be should be be elected to the board.
“My position is that he should not be serving the ATP, no question. And that became even more clear when I read the transcript (Tweeted by Ben Rothenberg). That he would willingly do what he did means he’s not the person you want driving your players.
I don’t want to be represented by him. I think Justin will get his act together, and take the right steps, but he should not be governing the ATP players.
“I started to think about it a number of months ago when the incident came to light. It was definitely a catalyst for me thinking about it, but my thinking solidified over the last couple of months. I have a set of experiences that I don’t think anyone else has had. I was there for the founding of the Tour. I’ve been outside of that, been political in the trenches for a long time. I think that combination of skills is very rare. And it also allows me to come with no ego.
When I served (on the board) before I was so fresh off the Tour. My identity was still tied into being a player. And now, I come in with a real freedom to act in the best way possible for the game and the players, and not worry where I fit in in the pecking order.”
On the disconnect at the top
“I feel that this is just an incredible time in men’s tennis, with these top three, top four. I’m disheartened to see the discord between the top guys, because I think if you can get all the players – but especially those three or four – on the same page, you can accomplish almost anything.
It’s sad to see the communications issues. From the outside, you have the three most important players at cross-purposes. And the players will be able to set their agenda depending on having those 3-4 players on board. There has been much goodwill built up with those guys. So I’d have to get in to see the nitty-gritty, what their individual thinking is. But I think that would be a huge piece of getting things back on track.”
On what he thinks the position involves
“It’s a critical, critical position. You don’t realize it, I think, until you’re in it. Here you are with the major decisions – outside anything to do with the Slams – impacting the top of the game. What we’ve seen with (Novak) Djokovic, he’s willing to use it. Which is a great sign. But hopefully we can get the players using the board position in the best possible way.
Inherently, there’s tension between the various groups that will never change. Between the higher and lower ranked, the singles and doubles players, and all the various needs. What you hope you can do is get a cohesive vision.”
Areas of particular focus
“What I want to stress that you can do great for the players by doing what’s right for the game.”
“You don’t know where it’s going to head and who’s going to fight various areas. But you have so much goodwill built up with these top guys, I’d like to stress to them that not only they can help themselves, they can help the players.
But also if you look back, people who’ve had a legacy impact go all the way to my hero Stan Smith, (Rod) Laver, (Cliff) Drysdale (the first president of the ATP) – all the way up to Arthur Ashe.”
“If you can sell to the top players that they can have a lasting, positive impact on the game – obviously it has to do with money, but it also has to do with the appeal of the game – I think you can have something special.
They’ve already set the stage. It’s not a feel-good thing after the fact. They’ve done all the right stuff for such a long time, including playing at the highest level. This is their chance to have a lasting impact on the game.
Every time I talk to my students, I ask them, ‘whose name is up on the stadium at the US Open? Why? Because they did great stuff through tennis. And that also extends their impact on the game beyond the tennis.”
On getting a bigger piece of the pie, even in the post-Federer era
“There are two ways the players can really help themselves financially. No. 1 is via the Grand Slams. And No. 2 is via the (Masters) 1000s and the 500s. What most players don’t recognize is that when we initially made the “Super 11” back in the early 1990s, there were a number of tournaments that were pushed aside. Those folks who were able to secure one of the 11 (which eventually went down to the nine Masters 1000s today) were basically given the golden ring.
This was the original plan when Mark Miles started it in 1994-95, that these would become the top events. And that’s what they’ve become.”
There was life after Michael Jordan, after (Magic) Johnson and (Larry) Bird. Sports will turn out great players. And when you put great players in one place in a guaranteed fashion (as with the Masters 1000s), you’ll have growth.
Those events in particular have far increased in value, as have the Slams. The piece of the pie that the players get is tiny, compared to any other sport. And again, this is where the goodwill of these top guys is important.
I also think that the part I want to hear them out on is how do we buoy the lower end of the game – not just the 250s, but the pathway, to make it healthy.
This is another reason I think the players are underpaid. The risk you take now to try to make it on the Tour is extraordinary, the money it takes to get you on that path. So if you get through, you should be more highly compensated.”
Conficts of interest and the ITF pathway
“I’m working with players who would like to make that jump from juniors up. It especially seems like the mishandling of the ITF situation and pathway scares a lot of them. Some of them are looking at colleges instead.
One thing that’s very disturbing is IMG sponsoring the junior rankings. I don’t know. … It’s so bad for the look of the game. And I don’t feel good about the Tennis Channel being at the (USTA) national headquarters. The optics are terrible.”
“That hasn’t even changed that much. They sold the rights for the initial Super 11. And they owned the Tour Championships, (represent) a number of the players, a number of tournaments.
There’s a vertical monopoly that still exists. I don’t know about untangling all of that, but you can make better choices.
I was guilty of it too. I did some work on Prime (Network), USA Channel. Obviously Patrick McEnroe with his mixed bag (as USTA high-performance director, Davis Cup captain and ESPN analyst) … It’s not good for the game. It just can’t be good. I’m not saying I’m going to get in there and fix it all. My goal would be to get in there and listen to the top guys, listen to everybody.”
“It seems now that you have people who are really interested in service. And that that goes all the way down to the lower-ranked players.
When I was on the Tour we tried to do that. But we wouldn’t even get (Ivan) Lendl, (John) McEnroe, (Jimmy) Connors, (Boris) Becker in the same room. They would come in and McEnroe would say, ‘I would be commissioner of tennis, we should have fewer tournaments – and only the ones I want to play.’
We tried to get those guys on the Council, and they wouldn’t do it.
(Then-CEO) Mark Miles really tried hard to reach out to them. I empathized with the players because when I was playing, it was different. When I was coming up, the ATP hadn’t started. There was three-pronged board setup. You just wanted to play tennis. But hopefully you can get people on the same page.
But the next big decision is whom do you hire for Chris (Kermode’s) position.”
“I put in a nomination with my CV. It’s due today (Monday). And the ATP will do a short list. Then I’ll get on the phone and start calling people; I’ve already sent a note to the Player Council.
I’ll get to Rome early, and get my face in front of as many people that will talk to me.
Then a presentation and Q&A with the council. It’d be 10-15 minutes, I’d imagine – very quick, by my recollection.
My task will be getting people to know me before I get in the room.
And that’s going to be the challenge. I remember older folks coming into the Council. And you think you’re well known. But you’re nine generations removed – especially when you hobble in needing a new knee. You come in, you have to get people to know you.
I have met Djokovic before. He’s going to be one the people that matters the most.”
Will he look to involve Federer and Nadal more comprehensively, despite them not being on the Player Council?
“That’s huge, pretty much central to the position.
What is exciting from what Justin did, was that he was able to actively – very actively – get one of the top players involved in the nitty-gritty. Kudos to him.
“There’s no way the top guys when I played would sit in a boardroom. They wanted to play in a band.
They all had bands. Wilander had a band. Noah had a band.
I really should have had a band.”
“You’ve got Federer’s agent, and Nadal’s group. So you have to be able to penetrate that. It’s been interesting to watch Djokovic suffer, because it’s a very difficult job.”
On how coaching resembles the boardroom
“In tennis you’re used to going out and training and having an impact. And in life, in a boardroom, it’s not that way. You have to do the hard work of negotiating and talking.
It’s not unlike teaching. And that’s maybe why teaching tennis is exciting to me, because you’re making changes on a granular level whether it’s a 10-year old, or an 18-year-old.
Obviously you have to know technique. But communications, helping people find meaning in what they’re doing, getting the parents involved so they understand – that’s the same work.
The reward is extraordinary because the changes don’t come when you want them to. And the work has to be endless and repetitive to get that change.”
(Photos: wire, Tennis.Life, eBay, ATP Tour website, Tim Mayotte Tennis Academy)
INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – The day after the rather controversial announcement that ATP Tour chief Chris Kermode would be gone at the end of the year, the three biggest names in tennis happened to be within three feet of each other on the practice courts.
It was lunchtime Friday.
And for the second straight day, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal had practiced next to each other.
(They had been scheduled to do it again on Saturday at 11 a.m. in an early version of the schedule. But as of late Friday night, Federer’s name was gone).
But this time – a twist.
Replacing Nadal and Andrey Rublev on Practice Court 1 was … Novak Djokovic, the president of the Player Council. Nadal had some strong words for the world No. 1 after the Kermode news.
And in his press conference Thursday, Djokovic retorted in kind.
Through all this, Federer would not weigh in publicly.
It’s been crazy on those front practice courts for the last few days.
But here’s the scenario: Federer has said he has not had an opportunity to speak to Djokovic, as he planned to do in Australia. He wouldn’t weigh on on whether he thought Kermode should say or go.
Nadal has said that Djokovic has not spoken to him about this fairly significant issue of who will lead the ATP. He came in firmly in the “Keep Kermode” camp.
Djokovic, who has significant power both as the president of the Player Council and the best player on the planet right now, is the single most valuable spokesman about WHY some on the council decided Kermode had to go.
But he won’t own it, citing confidentiality issues in terms of his duties to one of the sport’s governing bodies.
But there they all were on Saturday, within spitting distance. Once Nadal and Federer cleared the area (Federer had been hitting with Daniil Medvedev), Djokovic and Fognini took over the court.
Fellas, can we talk?
Tennis.Life arrived at the tail end of this superstar megadose. So there was no way to confirm if they were cordial (as they usually are), ignored each other, had words, or it was business as usual on the practice court.
Probably the last option. There’s a pretty big tournament about to get started for them on the weekend.
We can say with relative certainty that Camp Rafa isn’t particularly thrilled with Camp Djoko.
There’s a fair amount of behind-the-scenes drama going on in the mens’ game at the moment.
So if these guys won’t practice with each other (the fans might not survive that, to be honest; it’s hectic enough that they’re even next to each other), they should probably at least find a private room and have a chin wag, right?
INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – Roger Federer is feeling so good, he scheduled a practice doubleheader Thursday at Indian Wells.
And the first leg, at 10 a.m., was a special treat for the fans – many of whom would rather watch the big guys practice than take in a terrific, actual match in one of the stadiums.
It doesn’t happen that often that Rafael Nadal and Federer practice side by side. But it happened on Thursday.
It was unfortunate for Canadian Félix Auger-Aliassime, who was playing his first-round match at 11 a.m. inside the main stadium. Let’s just say that the number of fans just outside around Practice Courts 1 and 2 was exponential compared to those who went inside to watch one of the game’s rising stars.
Nadal was hitting with everyone’s favorite practice partner, Diego Schwartzman of Argentina.
Federer was hitting with a player who took some time to place. It was the Italian Thomas Fabbiano, another undersized player who lost in the first round of qualifying.
Two Goliaths, and two Davids
Fabbiano, age 29 and listed at 5-foot-8, is currently ranked No. 83.
And no, while he and Federer seemed to know each other, we don’t really know how that came about. They probably don’t hang out at the same restaurants.
Like two ships passing in the night
The funniest thing about these meetups on the practice court is that for the most part, the players everyone would like to think are great buddies generally ignore each other.
That’s true even when they are sitting back to back on the benches during the changeovers. It’s not like they’re gabbing like besties during water breaks.
That would be SO amazing, wouldn’t it? But they’re working. It wasn’t the time for two of the game’s giants to talk about the ousting of their CEO, Chris Kermode.
Even better? That some day, they’ll actually practice together. Obviously their practice pace and methods couldn’t be more opposed. But still, it would be a major occasion.
Or, barring that, play dubs together at Indian Wells or Madrid – or somewhere that’s not an exhibition where the main purpose is drumming up ticket sales.
The “nightcap” with Monfils
At 2 p.m., Federer was back out on the practice court with another unusual practice partner.
It was Gaël Monfils, who is having a great 2018 so far.
Now these two go way back. But we don’t recall ever seeing them practice together. Although surely it must have happened before.
On the next court were Kei Nishikori and Dominic Thiem.
So it was another nice meeting of top tennis talent in the same area code.
These are moments that happen regularly on the men’s side at Indian Wells. For the most part, the boys don’t seek refuge on some of the back practice courts (No. 8 and No. 9, notably), where the security cordons off the fans and they try not to let anyone in there.
Serena Williams, sister Venus and Maria Sharapova are fairly notorious for choosing to be back there.
It’s just one reason the men have a higher profile than the women do at a joint event like this one.
But it’s not as though anyone is going to go to the women and say, “Hey, it would be great for the WTA if you guys would practice right up there, front and centre.”
The return to the locker room from those practice courts basically takes all the players right by the big bullpen, where fans wait for autographs. It’s harder to walk right by them and not sign than it is when you leave the courts at the other end of the player’s field and stay wide of the area.
INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – For a fellow who was undecided about playing Indian Wells, Fabio Fognini has put in plenty of practice time the last few days.
On Tuesday, he had a day session and a brief one in the evening.
Wednesday, he hit the main stadium with Rafael Nadal at 10 a.m., before another session in the afternoon at 1 p.m.
For Nadal, the Acapulco event didn’t quite go as planned, as the No. 1 seed lost a fairly dramatic match to Nick Kyrgios in which he did everything right BUT win.
Kyrgios, of course, went on to win the tournament.
By Friday, Nadal was already in the desert.
Early matchups for Nadal and Fognini
Reports were that Nadal had considered skipping Acapulco entirely because of some issues with his left wrist. So given that, and given he hadn’t played a match since losing to Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open final, he played fairly well.
There have been reports out there that Nadal might skip Miami and even Madrid (his least favorite clay-court tournament, although it is in his home country) to lighten the load. We’ll see what happens.
Here are some pics from this morning’s practice.
Meanwhile, after his first-round bye, the Mallorcan will play the winner of wild card Jared Donaldson or a qualifier in his Indian Wells opener. The first seed he could meet is No. 25 Diego Schwartzman.
As for Fognini, he gets either Romania’s Marius Copil or a qualifier. Beyond that, he could face Oracle Challenger champion Kyle Edmund or perhaps Frances Tiafoe.
And, after all, Fognini will play doubles with Novak Djokovic.
They drew Canadian Milos Raonic and France’s Jérémy Chardy in the first round.
Nadal, who has often played doubles in the desert in the past, is passing this year.
Bug killin’ Nadal?
At one point in the practice, it looked as though Nadal committed bug-icide.
It’s not quite clear what was going on over there. But we’d like to think that the very large insect was close to expiration with no hope of rallying, after Dr. Nadal examined it closely.
And Nadal merely used his sports drink bottle to put the poor thing out of its misery.
And you thought those bottles were just for arranging.
The BNP Paribas Open announced Monday that Rafael Nadal will headline a Tie Break Tens event ahead of the main Indian Wells Masters 1000 / Premier Mandatory tournament.
It’s a winner-take-all event, with $150,000 US going to the winner.
Also confirmed are Dominic Thiem, Gaël Monfils and Milos Raonic. Two spots remain in the six-man field.
(We say “six-man field”, of course, because it’s a men-only event).
The Eisenhower Cup
It will be called the “Eisenhower Cup presented by Masimo”, and held on Tuesday, March 5 at 7 p.m. during the Indian Wells qualifying. They’ll use fabulous Stadium 2 to play it.
The format is two pools of three players, playing a first-to-10 match tiebreak. The winners of the two pools will square off in the final.
It’s a great addition to the first couple of days of the event.
The tickets, which go on sale Tuesday at 1 p.m. EST on the BNP Paribas Open website, will be $25. Proceeds from the event will go to four local charities: Masimo’s Patient Safety Movement, Eisenhower Health, Bighorn Golf Club Charities; and Family YMCA of the Desert.
Who will the final two be? Do you think they can convince Djokovic, Federer or del Potro to sign on? Tune in.
Speaking of Tie Break Tens, wasn’t there supposed to be a similar event at the Australian Open during the qualifying week? Whatever happened with that? It just … disappeared.
If you weren’t quick on the keyboard at 10 a.m. Geneva time (4 a.m. EST) this morning, you’re out of luck for September’s Laver Cup.
Unless your level of disposable income is off the charts, of course.
All the tickets available for the upper and lower bowls for the three-day, five-session event at Geneva’s 17,000-seat Palexpo sold out in two hours this morning.
In the upper bowl, prices ranged from $250 to over $1,500 for the five sessions.
In the lower bowl, they ranged from $1180 to $2820 US.
Unless they held back some single-session tickets for sale closer to the event (doubtful, but you never know), you had to buy the entire five-session package or be left out.
Get out your wallets
The premium “Hospitality” ticket series are the only option remaining.
And even the cheapest of those are already gone – the three “lowest” levels in this category. Also gone are the “Legends Cup 2” tickets – which are front row along the east sideline and probably don’t even offer the best viewing.
And obviously, having this edition in Switzerland, with national hero Roger Federer still a top player, was a slam-dunk.
Still, you get the sense that they need to strike while the iron is hot.
This edition has confirmed Federer and Rafael Nadal. But the event is more than nine months away. Recent history has not favoured Nadal, health wise, during the post-US Open part of the season.
Federer will be 38 by then. He seems in good form now. But at that age, there’s little certainty there even if he has proven remarkably resilient.
Post-Federer, a harder sell?
But what about “A.F” (after Federer)?
The territory is far less certain at that point, because there’s no doubt Federer’s presence and promotional capabilities drive this particular event.
It will be fascinating to see how it will “survive” without him even if as an investor, he’ll likely still be fully engaged in promoting it. But when he’s no longer stepping on court, that’s a game-changer.
It’s a fantastic event – well-staged, top class. The players who have taken part seem to enjoy it for the most part (as well as the nice cheque they get for showing up).
As a television event, beyond the fact that the commentators and analysts are still trying a little too hard to “hype” it as a “real competitiion”, it’s topnotch. But television viewers don’t pay those premium prices for tickets.
After two years, we’re told, the event is still in the red because of the high startup costs. You’d have to think this third edition will put it in the black – to match the distinctive court.
MELBOURNE, Australia – The tennis that Novak Djokovic imposed upon Rafael Nadal Sunday night in the Australian Open men’s singles final was of all-world proportions.
And the bell that sounded when it was over after barely two hours sounded like this: “Roger and your 20 majors? Rafa and your 17? I’m coming for you.”
In Nadal’s case, that might even be this season, if Sunday’s combination of motivation, desire and execution is any hint.
Djokovic surrendered just eight games and made just nine unforced errors in a 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 victory. His eternal rival, in their 53rd meeting, was at times made to look as though he had never faced this particular Serb before.
“Obviously back to back semi-finals and finals and make 15 unforced errors in total, in two matches, is quite pleasantly surprising to myself. Even though I always believe I can play this way, and kind of visualize myself playing this way, at this level and under the circumstances it was really a perfect match,” Djokovic said.
It took 33 minutes, through more than four service games, for Nadal to win a point on Djokovic’s serve. They were 53 minutes in before he won his second. It took an hour and 46 minutes for Nadal to get his first break opportunity on Djokovic’s serve. Some 15 minutes after that, it was over.
Quick start the key
The victory wasn’t a shock, based on their hard-court resumé. But the jokers were a little wild on that score. It has been nearly three years since they met on a hard court.
Since then, both have had physical challenges. Djokovic went from the nearly-unbeatable player he was then into a downturn exacerbated by both ailing elbow and bruised psyche. After winning so much, for such an extended period of time, he needed to find new purpose and new motivation for this chapter of his career.
Still, Nadal hadn’t won a hard-court set from Djokovic since the 2013 US Open final. And he’d played little hard-court tennis at all over the last 12 months: only the Australian Open (where he retired against Marin Cilic in the quarterfinals), the Roger Cup (which he won) and the US Open, where he retired against Juan Martin del Potro in the semis.
So form held true, in that sense.
Defense didn’t answer the call
Beyond that, Djokovic had extra mustard. He kept the ball deep, as he always does. But he took it so early, so often, he gave Nadal no time to settle in, no room to breathe. He rattled him from the start.
If Nadal’s legs looked a bit frozen, if he looked nervous, Nadal said that was all credit to his opponent.
“It was not about being more nervous. I (had) normal nerves, like final of Grand Slam. But the things started so quick. He was pushing me to every ball. What on other days have been a serve and a ball that I can have in offensive position, today have been in defensive position. That’s not nerves. That’s things that happened quicker than what happened the previous days,” he said.
“I don’t like to say he played unbelievably well, because looks like you find an excuse for yourself. The real thing is he played so well. He did a lot of things (that are) very difficult unbelievably well. He hit so long. His return was fantastic. He was super quick. I really believe that he was able to work very hard on the off-season on his movement. He was moving unbelievably well. I felt that good shots came back with offensive position for me, after not a bad shot from me, I have been in the defensive position (instead).”
Quick start required
Djokovic said he needed to rush out of the starting gates with a flourish.
“It’s exactly what I intended to do. I want do step out on court and bring the intensity. Because I knew intensity was waiting for me on the other side. He makes you play every shot from the very first point, brings a lot of energy in the shots,” Djokovic said. “I definitely needed a good start, because we both were playing well coming into the match. I knew I have a good chance if I’m in the court dictating play.”
The Mallorcan had looked impressive in getting to the final. More than that; he had looked devastating.
But his draw was well set up. He dismissed the Next Gen – Alex de Minaur, Frances Tiafoe and Stefanos Tsitsipas – with a few swats of his mighty Babolat. He took care of a resurgent contemporary, Tomas Berdych, with all the might his 19-4 head-to-head against the Czech would suggest.
Djokovic was a next-level challenge, compared to those who had come before. Perhaps two levels above.
An as Nadal explained it, he didn’t have that “extra thing” he needed to put up more resistance.
Nadal said he was able to win his first six matches with his offense. But against Djokovic, he knew he needed his defence to also be up to the task.
Lack of practice, lack of perfect
This was his first official tournament since the US Open last September. And the player who builds so much of his confidence on how much, and how well, he practices had been woefully short in that area. So when he needed it, it wasn’t there.
“I have been lot of months without having the chance to practice, without having the chance to compete. And have been two positive weeks. The only thing probably that I need is time and more matches. … Of course, he played better than what probably he played during the rest of the tournament. Being honest, I saw him the tournament more or less. He probably played the best match so far. Playing that well, is so difficult for everybody, for everyone, when he plays that level, is so difficult to fight for victories against him,” Nadal said.
“But if I am able to run 100 per cent and to resist every ball, then you find ways. The things that looks easy for him become little bit more difficult when you have to do it one more time, one more time and one more time. I was not able to push him to do it one more, one more, one more every time. That’s my feeling,” he added. “I believe the level of tennis have been great. Probably the only thing that remained a little bit more to me was normally the best thing that I have (the defense). Is something that I am not worried much.”
Nole Slam nears again
A year ago in Melbourne, Djokovic was just weeks away from surgery on his elbow. He was defeated in straight sets by Hyeon Chung of Korea in the fourth round.
He returned – perhaps too hastily – and lost in the first round of both Indian Wells and Miami. But by Wimbledon, he was back.
“Not impossible, but highly unlikely. I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I always believe in myself, and that’s probably the biggest secret of my success, or any other athlete,” Djokovic said about Sunday night’s win, looking ahead from where he was a year ago.
An imperial challenge
Djokovic has now won the last three majors. If he can win the French Open in the spring, he would hold all four Grand Slams at once for the second time in his career. And he will have won them in the same order: starting with Wimbledon, ending with Roland Garros.
“We’ll see. Obviously it’s just the beginning of the season. I know there’s a lot of tournaments to play before the Roland Garros, so I have plenty of time to build my form slowly, obviously staying on a hard court first with big tournaments, Indian Wells and Miami, then starting the clay,” he said. “Obviously I have to work on my game, my clay court game, a bit more, more specifically than I have in the last season. I need to play better than I have last season. I am already playing better. But, I mean, clay specifically in order to have a chance and shot at the title.
“The ultimate challenge there is to win against Nadal. Then you have Thiem and Zverev, Roger is probably going to play. You have a lot of great players that on clay can challenge me or anybody else.”
Is 20 in sight?
He now has seven Australian Opens. And he has 15 majors – two short of Nadal, five short of Federer.
He’s going to give it a go.
“I am aware that making history of the sport that I truly love is something special. Of course, it motivates me. Playing Grand Slams, biggest ATP events, is my utmost priority in this season and in seasons to come. How many seasons are to come? I don’t know. I’m not trying to think too much advance,” he said.
“I do want to definitely focus myself on continuing to improve my game and maintaining the overall well-being that I have mental, physical, emotional, so I would be able to compete at such a high level for the years to come, and have a shot at eventually getting closer to Roger’s record. It’s still far.”