Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Iron Man Rafa Flattened By The Wall

By Shane Thomas

Flushing Meadows was the scene of 2011's sporting moment of the year as Novak Djokovic won his third Grand Slam of the season, defeating the defending champion Rafael Nadal in four gruelling sets (6-2,6-4,6-7,6-1).

This has been Nole's year. He marmalised Andy Murray to win the Australian Open in January and hasn't looked back. His remarkable win/loss record continues, only two defeats in 2011 bringing him 10 titles, despite being pushed to the brink of physical exhaustion. While Nadal came into the final on the back of a straight sets win against Murray, Djokovic had to overcome a marathon five-set encounter to despatch Roger Federer in the other semi-final. The Serb was two sets to love behind, and like 12 months ago, had to save match-points before triumphing in dramatic style.

While the final was only four sets, they bordered on tennis's apotheosis. The standard of shot-making, defence, recovery and athleticism left the fans and commentators searching for the superlatives. In both the first and second sets, Rafa took first blood to race into a 2-0 lead. Both times, Djokovic wrestled the momentum back. He was managing to muscle the Spaniard around the court and bend him to his will. It looked to be a repeat of the superiority he showed in this year's Wimbledon final.

At 4-4 in the third, Djokovic broke Nadal again. Serving for the title, it looked all over bar the shouting. But there is no spirit more willing than Rafa's. He broke straight back, took the set to a tie-break, and won it convincingly. The crowd - now fully on his side - roared their approval; not because of a dislike for Djokovic, but because they wanted to see more of this extraordinary contest. However, at times, it manifested itself in them cheering when Novak failed to get a first serve in. While I've always liked the fevered atmosphere that one gets at the US Open, sometimes the crowd allow their emotions to descend from fervour into disrespect. This was sadly one of those occasions.

Thankfully the quality of the tennis overshadowed the actions of a few thoughtless dingwads. And it's just as well that tennis balls aren't sentient as both players would have been charged with assault; they hit their shots with such savage ferocity that you worried for the safety of the ballboys & ballgirls. It mattered little as any time one man looked to have won the point, the opponent would find a way to lay their racket on the ball to continue the rally. 10 shot rallies became 15. 15 became 20. 20 became 30. It looked as if it would be a late night for every spectator, especially those in the UK.

This was compounded by Djokovic calling the trainer onto court after losing the third set. Clearly suffering with his back, he periodically received treatment to nurse him through the match. With Rafa winning the third set, and Nole looking to be out of gas, many wise pundits expected Nadal to win in five.

And a year ago, that might have been true. But "The Wall" is now a different animal. He has reached a level of dominance where he simply doesn't know how to lose at present. Two sets down to Federer, he'll find a way to win. An injured back and the sport's "Iron Man" in the ascendency, he'll find a way to win. It's what all great champions do. And Djokovic is truly a great champion now. He broke Nadal's serve at the first attempt, and with the Majorcan's resistance finally yielding, he went on to win the set 6-1, winning the match and securing his fourth Grand Slam title.

Nadal admitted that he has struggled with his mental focus against Djokovic in the clutch moments this year. He hasn't been the only one, but it has been a chastening time for the Spaniard. It was not that long ago that some felt that he may be the greatest player to ever swing a racket, and despite winning the French Open, it's been a disappointing 2011.

Djokovic meanwhile, has reigned supreme. He may not go on to equal the achievements of Federer and Nadal, but last night proved that he's no flash in the pan. You can hit a good run of form for a few weeks. But you don't fluke a whole year of competition. We've been in a golden age of men's tennis for a while now and Nole's achievements are making this era glisten ever more brightly.


My focus is on the men's final is simply because it was one of the greatest tennis matches I have ever seen. But that doesn't make the women's final any less significant. And it's a pity that Serena Williams' conduct has been the main story of the women's section of the draw. If you really want to know what happened, read elsewhere or do some Googling as I'd rather focus on the victor, Sam Stosur.

Once a leading force in the tennis world, there has been a relative paucity of quality to come from Australia in recent years, which is unbecoming for a nation that gave us Rod Laver, Evonne Goolagong-Cawley, John Newcombe and Pat Cash. With Lleyton Hewitt gone from the business end of Grand Slam tournaments and Bernard Tomic still green, the focus of Australian tennis attention has been placed firmly on the shoulders of Stosur. And it's attention that she has struggled to deal with.

After reaching the French Open final in 2010 as the favourite, she choked against the Italian, Francesca Schivaone. The press correctly focused on Schiavone grabbing her one shot of glory, but it left Stotur's confidence in tatters, as she took months to cope with defeat; her game deteriorating into an inconsistent mess since that summer's day in Paris.

So we should all delight in her regaining her form to not only win the US Open, but to win with a dominant display of superb hitting. Even Williams, who is not often the most gracious of losers, admitted that any questionable umpiring decisions were a minor factor in the match, and that Stosur was the better woman on the day.

Williams is a great champion and is a safer bet to win Grand Slams in the future than the Australian. But Stosur's win was one to relish. It should resonate with anyone who's fallen short in achieving their dreams, but refused to allow it to define them. Failure isn't always the endgame, sometimes it's a pit-stop to a much more fulfilling destination.

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