The final of the Australian Open has, in my view, been somewhat misinterpreted. The consensus seems to be that the match in Melbourne on Sunday was a damp squib. A contest that didn’t live up to expectation. Rafael Nadal lost comfortably to Novak Djokovic because he never quite “found his game” and was a “bit tight”. What a shame we didn’t get a better match!
I struggle to recognise this interpretation. To my mind, Nadal lost comfortably because he came up against an opponent hitting shots with greater weight and authority than anyone in the history of the game, a champion who deconstructed his opponent like a surgeon conducting an autopsy. Yes, I would have preferred a more competitive match, with ebbs and flows, but nevertheless managed to find a different kind of pleasure from the sheer majesty of Djokovic’s play.
Nadal may have been a tad edgy, but this, too, was a consequence not of some inherent mental fragility, but of the man standing on the other side of the net. Who wouldn’t have a mental block against an opponent who has beaten you in straight sets in the past seven encounters on hard courts, and whom you have not beaten on any surface other than clay since the US Open in 2013?
Djokovic will never, I have come to realise, gain the recognition that he deserves. If Roger Federer had destroyed a player such as Nadal in a grand-slam final, it would have been instantly written into the record books. The New Yorker would have commissioned an 8,000-word feature on the “kinetic beauty” of the Swiss and, the British glossies would have been full of the poetry of his game and the joy that he brings to millions.
Djokovic, 31, has always been judged by a different tribunal. I have watched him at Roland Garros in Paris, at Wimbledon, in New York, and he always finds himself not only up against his opponent but also the crowd, perhaps the world. The US Open semi-final against Federer in 2011, which he won in five sets, was not unrepresentative, Djokovic glancing at his corner in disbelief in the fourth set when he won a pulsating rally to near silence. When Federer won the next point, a rather tepid affair, a cascade of noise near separated the paint from the rafters.
I glanced at Twitter after the champion from Serbia’s 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 triumph in Melbourne on Sunday and read post after post arguing that, while Djokovic is “good” and “admirable”, he will “never” be the greatest. Federer is more beautiful, it was said, more graceful and more inspiring. Oh, and that single-handed backhand. Has there ever been a more aesthetically pleasing stroke in the game?
On this last point, at least, we should push back against such a dubious consensus. Federer’s backhand may look beautiful but it is a weakness, a shot that is hunted by Nadal like a deer by a leopard, the Spanish player organising the geometry of every point, the better to pin his opponent on the reverse diagonal, spinning the ball high off the floor. There was a brief period in their rivalry when Federer caught the ball so often on the leading edge that it became almost rhythmical.
Djokovic does not really have a weakness; any weakness. His backhand is not, to my mind, ugly; it is an expression of pure engineering efficiency. Indeed, if you want to understand why Nadal was so unsure of himself during the final, just look at the exchanges in the first three games. When he plays to Djokovic’s forehand, it comes back with interest. When he plays to his backhand, hoping for some respite, it comes back even faster.
Djokovic developed this strategy in 2011, realising that if he could better Nadal on his favoured diagonal — his backhand to Nadal’s forehand — it would destroy his spirit. And this is what he did in that year’s US Open final, taking the backhand on the up, leaning into the ball, stealing time from his opponent such that he could not wind up his forehand, his putative strength, retreating ever farther behind the baseline as Djokovic came in for the kill. It was beautiful, audacious, devastating.
The concept of an unforced error in tennis has always been inherently problematical but rarely more so than in matches between Nadal and Djokovic. The former has to take risks, to go for the lines, or he would be systematically picked apart. The errors on Sunday may have looked unforced, perhaps even careless, but they were a direct consequence of a broader historical arc, a rivalry in which Djokovic has the upper hand, a dominant strategy, on every surface but clay.
Yet, ultimately, it is not the tactics but the mentality of Djokovic that impresses most. One gained a glimpse of that granite mindset moments after the match ended. This is a player, remember, who had just destroyed the world No 2, who had reached something approaching perfection. How do you exceed perfection? Only by seeking a new form of perfection. As Djokovic put it in his post-match interview: “I do want to definitely focus myself on continuing to improve my game.”
Isn’t this the essence of greatness, to continue innovating even at the point of maximum advantage? To seek improvements while at the top of your game? The Beatles followed Rubber Soul with Revolver, and then a year later, in 1967, released Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I wouldn’t be surprised if Djokovic follows his Australian Open triumph with even greater feats.
I have no problem with those who proclaim Federer the greatest. He has won 20 grand-slam titles, five more than Djokovic. My hunch, however, is that Djokovic will — injury permitting, a not insignificant caveat — ultimately overhaul his Swiss rival. He has positive head-to-head records against all his leading opponents (Federer has negative records against both Djokovic and Nadal) and has had to win slams the hard way. When he arrived in the top echelon, Federer and Nadal were at their peak.
Yet I suspect that he will always struggle to receive plaudits commensurate with his achievements, and will continue to play before audiences mainly rooting for the other guy. His methodology of measured, sustained pressure does not seem to thrill a certain type of sports fan, despite its effectiveness and idiosyncratic beauty.
In that “anticlimactic” final, Djokovic played tennis at a higher level than any before. I, for one, look forward to seeing if he can dare to take this wonderful game higher still.
This week I am reading
AJ Ayer: A Life, by Ben Rogers — fine biography of the British philosopher and intellectual
There is much about Ayer’s ideas and colourful love life. He dated many “society beauties” and married Vanessa Lawson, former wife of Nigel the politician and mother of Nigella. He was more than 25 years her senior.
There is also much about sport, not least Ayer’s lifelong love of Tottenham Hotspur. Perhaps the most memorable anecdote was late in life when he was (as so often) at a party, this time in New York on West 57th Street, where he was visiting.
He was chatting with a group of models when they heard a commotion. Mike Tyson was acting aggressively towards Naomi Campbell, a south London model then starting out in her career. Ayer, in his late seventies, confronted the boxer, who became infuriated. “Do you know who the f*** I am?” Tyson snarled. “I’m the heavyweight champion of the world.” Ayer stood his ground. “And I am the former Wykeham Professor of Logic. We are both pre-eminent in our field. I suggest we talk about this like rational men,” he said. As the men began to talk, Campbell slipped away.