Preamble/Disclaimer: Nothing I’m about to say is intended to undermine either Djoko’s win this weekend, or his streak that dates back to DC last year.
The streak is now at 32 (34 if you include DC) and includes wins over Murray, Nadal(3) and Federer(3). If you include Berdych, Almagro and Ferrer that’s 10-0 vs. top ten players this year. Not to mention that the latest of those is a win over Rafa on clay.
How do you even begin to go about undermining something like that? Couldn’t even if I wanted to.
As an achievement it stands almost, but not quite, alone (though I really don’t know how sensible it is to compare Johnny Mac’s 39 match streak with the competition Nole’s had). And for that, he deserves every accolade, every possible plaudit coming his way.
And now the caveat that only just about dares to speak its name: The best player in the world right now (by far) beat a Rafa in questionable form – try as I may, I can’t see anything “seismic” in that. Yes, EVEN on clay. And I wanted Nole to win.
Oh don’t worry. I’m not peddling asterisks – I rarely get my hands dirty with those even when I believe they’re warranted (which in this case I don’t).
But then I don’t believe in sticking my head in the sand either: it’s self-evident to anyone that's been following him that Rafa’s form has been suspect, almost since the year began. In fact, I believe I’m on record as saying I expected Rafa to lose on clay at least once this season.
Again, not too worry – there will be some gloating, nose-rubbing and trumpet-blowing on my part, but this has more to do with simply acknowledging an observable phenomenon.
You don’t need me to enumerate all the instances: there was something wholly spontaneous about the way he combusted in IW/Miami – Madrid wasn’t nearly as bad, but a crisis of confidence did, nevertheless, permeate his entire performance.
The most glaring and persistent problem was a lack of depth. I hope we don’t need to be reminded that far lesser players than Novak have cleaned up against Rafa when he does that.
In spite all of that, and despite some of the headlines I’ve seen, Rafa remains ‘King of Clay’ and the overwhelming favourite going into RG. As great as this win is, as great as the streak is, it says little or nothing about Nole’s chances at the FO – other than that he must be considered one of the favourites.
Five sets is a game changer. Words like ‘fatigue’ enter the equation. And however tentative Rafa might get, he still trumps Tired-Nole. Some things never change.
1. Why is “altitude” always a problem when Rafa loses in Madrid?
I’m not willing to let this pass anymore. Someone’s gotta put a stop to it.
It’s not that I don’t think altitude is a factor. I just don’t agree with it being accorded “Theory of Relativity” status.
Fact: Rafa’s timing has been off ALL YEAR. Sometimes shockingly so. He found it only sporadically in the final, but when he did, he started to play better. As easy as that. Very little (nothing) to do with “altitude”.
2. Chicken and Egg: To play or not to play, behind the baseline
Ditto re the strongly worded critiques of Rafa playing behind the baseline. They can’t be allowed to go on either. Not unless we’re prepared to be equally vocal about it when he’s winning three Slams a year.
Playing behind the baseline is his default play – don’t expect that to change anytime soon. I don’t always approve (and he does seem to adjust for grass and faster courts), but his athleticism and, crucially, the depth he usually maintains, means he remains effective doing something that would normally prove FATAL for anyone else.
Of course, when he isn’t maintaining that depth, he’s vulnerable to being pushed further back (as he was in the final) in a way in which Fed and Nole, or indeed Davydenko, are simply not.
Chicken and Egg.
3. Conventional Wisdom be damned.
Less controversial this one.
That Rafa is more comfortable being the “hunter” rather than the “hunted” has been conventional wisdom, almost since he first broke on to the tour in 2005 – and probably remains true in part even today.
Even so, I can’t help thinking that a rather large part of what shapes that view is Rafa remaining world #2 for so very long. Put simply, if Fed didn’t play tennis and Rafa acquired the #1 ranking in 2006 instead of 2008, we’d probably be thinking very differently about it.
I prefer, in any case, to take a more cyclical view: it’s far harder to defend THAT many points than it is to acquire them. Seems obvious really. Not to mention the alternating nature of Rafa’s health/form since 2008.
Not that I believe in getting all conspiratorial about it either (see, “Rafa’s ‘underdog thing’ is nothing more than a front” – he may do that from time to time to deflect the media glare, but that kind of spin is really not either his or Fed’s style).
Things have, quite simply, now (with or without “Nole the Unsinkable”), evolved into something far more complex than can be routinely explained away by any one of many so-called “conventional wisdoms”.
“Conventional wisdom” also said that Rafa couldn’t be beaten on clay.
Corollary: conventional wisdom can go to hell.
4. Tweener-lob > Tweener (obvious I hope)
Yes it was a remarkable feat of ingenuity and athleticism.
Yes it’s only capable of being pulled off by the most skilled and creative players our sport is ever likely to see.
Which is why I find it all the more necessary to point out that it does, in fact, have a precedent.
Needless to say, Rafa’s rendering of it was totally awesome in its own right – nothing can or should take away from that. I just don’t remember the street parades when Fabrice pulled his little wonder off.
Another neglected question: Why must Nole be on the receiving end of so many of these?
5. Fed can beat still Rafa.
Self-evident, now, I hope.
Not only that, but I remain confident he can beat him on clay. Not regularly, of course, not routinely, and certainly not when Rafa’s at his best.
I just find it irritating when the fanboy fraternity pretend that there’s something inherently unbreakable about Rafa. It’s really not the case. Not on clay nor anywhere else.
It should be obvious to any one with a multi-cellular brain how and why clay creates just the right blend of conditions for Rafa’s optimal play.
All of that on one side and the basic, elementary and uncomplicated issue of fluctuating form on the other – which Rafa, just like anyone else, is vulnerable to: I should have thought that was obvious too with what we’ve seen from him this year more than any other.
Fed was able to exploit that shoddy form to explosively wrench away the first set from Rafa in a way in which only he can.
Unconverted BPs (*gasp*) and an altercation with Molay (really wish he’d let it go) saw to it that he wasn’t able to carry that over – but that’s a far cry from saying it can never happen.