My Name is Red

Things used to be that players had certain shots or traits which were more pronounced than the rest of their game. Pete Sampras had his athleticism and his second serve, Andre Agassi had the best hand-eye co-ordination and the best backhand, Goran Ivanisevic could aim the serve on a dime, Pat Rafter had his net-game …

Then racquet technology started maturing and started playing the “great equalizer” along with court-speed adjustments. But we have Federer who has a game that could work everywhere on court, but who has his strength in his forehand and serve. Rafael Nadal, maybe the best athlete among the greats after Pete Sampras, has his forehand and foot-work. Of course these “strenghts” of the modern players do not have as much a lead on the rest of their games as did those of the players of the 90s – but still if we had to pick, we could.

So, Nadal and Federer are arguably, still the products of a process of equalization, rather than the products of the culmination of it. So, does a player exist who is ahead of them in this evolution? The automatic pick is Novak Djokovic. Wait! What about his backhand return? When you are just about to pick that up in triumph of disproval, he hits a couple of blistering forehands on the rise, on the lines. Serve, backhand, forehand, athleticism, net-game – everything dissolves into a homogeneous whole in Djokovic. There is no clear place to go if you want to hurt him. The only way in which you can beat him is to play lights out in all departments of the game.

Which is why Rafa has had a problem with him. Rafa is a player of rhythm and pattern, and set-pieces that he dominates make him impossible to beat in a match. He is easily able to direct these such that the climax ends on the opponent’s backhand in the case of Federer. Against Djokovic, he finds them, time and again, ending on his own backhand. Given the fact that Djokovic can hit any ball from anywhere on the court from either wing, Rafa would have to dig deeper and depend on finer aspects of Djokovic’s game to gain an upper-hand in a rally, which is exactly the kind of thing that Rafa loves – problem solving. Though Djokovic may look complete from a cursory look, no one is perfect. A great player can spot weaknesses and exploit them where others do not. A “weakness” that is too difficult to exploit is not really a weakness – so until you actually take advantage of them, they are things you tell yourself for consolation.

We have already seen glimpses of it happening – serve to Djokovic’s body rather than backhand, directing the ground-strokes deep into Djokovic’s forehand in the middle of the court asking him to create the angles, and working extra hard to ensure a healthier percentage of inside-out to cross-court forehands. On a hard-court, Rafael would have to play at his absolute best to beat Novak. It would boil down to execution.

What about clay? Would clay act like a magnifying glass does on light, and blow-up the possbilities for either player? Would Djokovic be able to direct more deadly down-the-line backhands or would Rafael find himself hitting more inside out forehands?

A backhand as good as it can come, is not the best generator of power. Djokovic’s down-the line play would have a bit of it’s sting taken out of it for two reasons – clay exacerbates the effect of spin on the ball, and takes a bit of pace off it. Djokovic would have to content with a slower, bouncier, spinning ball – which is not a very great friend of the down-the-line backhand. It would also allow Rafael more time to redirect the ball to Djokovic’s forehand. The game in a state of equilibrium would seem to be titled slightly in Rafael’s favour.

However there are the initial conditions to content with – the serve and the return. If Rafa has a bad serving day, Novak could take the upper hand from the first ground-stroke. However Rafael is still the best defender on clay. The question is how effective would his defence be in grinding out a player of Novak’s tenacity. If Novak gives Rafael too many looks on a forehand return, Rafael could win all the ensuing rallies.

As far as Djokovic is concerned, it’s probably the most ambitious that anyone could get – hold all four Slams at the same time, and beat Rafael Nadal on clay to win the final one (he would also have beaten Rafael in all of the four slams – I don’t know how this would reflect on either player). This would add Djokovic’s name to the list of all-time greats and he would start frequently making appearances in the Greatest-Of-All-Time debates.

On the other hand, winning Roland Garros for the 7th time would seat Rafael Nadal on a throne higher than Borg’s. Rafael Nadal on clay would arguably become the most feared creature to pick up a racquet.

In the final reckoning, one would likely find out that, this is clay, there is a ruler, and that his reign is far from over. Rafael is the better thinker on court, and the better mover on clay. He has the single bigger weapon between the two – his forehand. Also, he has been able to swing the percentages in a more than satisfactory manner in their past two encounters on clay.

The money would be on Rafael in a four setter.

(“My Name is Red” is a novel by Orhan Pamuk, Literature Nobel Prize Winner).

  1. Jun 11, 2012 at 5:20 PM

    Good post. I have come to the same conclusion; Nadal simply cannot find somewhere to go to with Djokovic. I doubt that has changed with this French Open final but Wimbledon might give us a better picture. Djoko is doing what Seles did to women’s tennis in the early 90s; equalizing both sides. Of course, you could attack Seles’ movement and you can’t even do that to Nole. He does everything well but probably one thing better than anybody else on tour; to hit winners at full stretch and out of court.

  2. Jun 12, 2012 at 2:22 AM

    Yes Nadal has no option but to play his best. At least he will melt to a lesser degree when he sees Novak across the net breathing hard.

    Thanks for the read and the comment 🙂

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