The GOAT dancing on the red earth – News


Novak Djokovic’s rivalry with Rafael Nadal is unfinished business



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By Sumit Chakraberty

Published: Thu 9 Jun 2022, 09:14 PM

Imagine the greatest table tennis player of all time, Ma Long, whipping a forehand topspin. Now imagine him doing that with his left hand on a tennis court. That’s Rafael Nadal for you.

Nadal’s style of play is more common in TT than in tennis. The forehand forehand and backhand jab are easier to execute with a TT racquet on a TT table. If you try this with a much heavier tennis racquet on a 78 foot long court, you’ll sprain a wrist and look stupid.

That’s why you don’t see a Nadal clone on the tennis circuit despite the brilliance of the Spaniard who has won 22 Grand Slam titles. What he does is physically difficult to copy – just as it is difficult for any other bowler to replicate the body contortions of a Lasith Malinga delivery in cricket with the same speed and control.

It’s something you should start doing at an early age without a parent, uncle or coach forcing you to ditch it for a more conventional style. Additionally, you would need the right physical attributes – in Nadal’s case, an extremely strong and flexible wrist for control, powered by forearms and biceps that produce sufficient force, and a strong lower body for control. stability.

At a shade over six feet, it’s the perfect height for that, too. Bigger would make it much harder to bend and execute topspins and jabs. Any court would be too handicapping for the tennis service.

Nadal’s rivals Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, being right-handed, are both vulnerable to Nadal’s forehand whiplash. Federer was the first to suffer, losing the 2005 French Open semi-final to Nadal in the 19-year-old Spaniard’s run to his maiden Grand Slam title. This beating was repeated in the 2006, 2007 and 2008 finals at Roland Garros.

It was painful to watch Federer’s momentum disrupted by constantly being forced to execute awkward shoulder-high backhand slices. Federer’s flowing one-handed backhand, one of the classiest spectacles in tennis, became a liability against Nadal’s looping forehand with a side-spin twist.

Federer has relied to some extent on the grass at Wimbledon where the ball skids faster and lower than on the red clay at Roland Garros where it straightens and begs Nadal to topspin. But the Spaniard put one on the Swiss grass master in five sets in the 2008 Wimbledon final after losing back-to-back finals to Federer.

It would have to be said that Nadal had the wood on Federer psychologically because of his total domination at Roland-Garros where the Spaniard won his six meetings. Federer is 3-1 against Nadal at Wimbledon, having avenged his 2008 semifinal loss in 2019. Nadal is a similar 3-1 against Federer at the Australian Open. And somehow they never faced each other at the US Open.

Overall, Nadal now has a lead of two Grand Slam titles over Federer who is over 40 and recovering from his third knee surgery. The rivalry for the mantle of GOAT (greatest of all time) seems over between these two, but there will always be nostalgia for the faded glory of classic lawn tennis that Federer embodies.

It’s a different matter when it comes to Djokovic, however. He is a year younger than Nadal, 36, and he is in violin shape.

The Serb seemed to have settled the GOAT debate last year when he won the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon back-to-back to catch Federer and Nadal in totaling 20 Grand Slam titles. Then six-foot-six Alexander Zverev, currently world No. 3, ended his quest for a Golden Slam at the Olympics, and the equally tall and powerful Daniil Medvedev, currently world No. denied a Grand Slam by defeating him in the US Open final.

Djokovic made his slide worse by refusing to get a Covid shot at the cost of losing the chance to defend his Australian Open title. This coincided with Nadal’s unexpected resurgence after a six-month layoff for treatment of his chronic left foot bone disorder. The latest installment in the GOAT rivalry between them was a French Open quarter-final clash. It turned into an upside down battle which Nadal won in a fourth-set tiebreaker, extending his lead over Djokovic to 8-2 at Roland Garros.

Djokovic has the ability to stay in the long rallies to beat Nadal at his own game of fetching every ball until opponents start cheating by going too far. His economy of motion and balance as his body sinks shot after shot comes as close to tennis perfection as possible. If Nadal plays wrist TT on a tennis court, contrasting with Federer’s flowing groundstrokes and volleys reminiscent of how tennis was played, Djokovic brings biomechanical precision to the modern grassroots game suitable for artificial surfaces.

Like everyone else, Djokovic comes undone to Nadal on the red clay at Roland Garros which favors Nadal’s topspin as the sluggishness of the box reduces Djokovic’s chances of producing a winner before an error. Yet two of Nadal’s three defeats in 115 French Open appearances have come against Djokovic in 2015 and 2021. Nadal’s first French Open loss came earlier in 2009 in an upset quarter-final against Robin Soderling which opened the door to Federer’s only Frenchman. Open title.

Djokovic lost the 2015 final to Stan Wawrinka after defeating Nadal, but won his first title the following year after Nadal withdrew midway through the tournament with a sprained wrist. Yes, even the big man’s wrist could not always withstand extreme topspin.

Djokovic claimed his second French Open title by beating Nadal in the 2021 semi-final en route to a five-set thriller in the final against Stefanos Tsitsipas, with the Serb coming back from two sets. This made Djokovic the first of the Big Three to win two titles at each of the four Grand Slam venues. Nadal equalized this year by winning his second Australian Open title, after losing two sets to Medvedev in the final.

The symmetry between the two GOAT contenders is uncanny. But a closer look shows Djokovic’s superiority away from Roland Garros. It was in the first five years of his Grand Slam appearances that he continued to lose to Federer or Nadal, and even gained notoriety for giving up long matches. A new diet and a new fitness regime made him something else in 2011.

Nadal has never beaten Djokovic at Wimbledon since then, and he hasn’t won a single win against Djokovic in his entire career at the Australian Open, the Serb’s most successful arena. The Spaniard won the 2022 Australian Open in Djokovic’s absence and the 2009 edition after Djokovic withdrew in his quarter-final against Jo Wilfred Tsonga due to heat stress. Nadal’s last win over Djokovic at the US Open was nine years ago in 2013 and the two haven’t met since then.

Djokovic has six Wimbledon titles, just two shy of Federer’s eight, and a record nine Australian Open titles. Nadal has two titles at each of those two sites, giving Djokovic a combined 15-4 head-to-head lead. It’s comparable to Nadal’s 14-2 lead over Djokovic in the French Open titles.

Nadal’s overall lead to two Grand Slam titles over Djokovic crowns the Spanish GOAT in terms of statistics, for now. And the trio of Nadal, Djokovic and Federer are so far ahead of the greats of previous eras that the debate focuses primarily on the Big Three. The second highest tally of Grand Slam titles is Pete Sampras’ 14, and the American has never even reached a French Open final.

But you have to talk about two potential goats from the past. Bjorn Borg won six French Open titles and five consecutive Wimbledon titles at the age of 25. The Swedish star walked away from the sport after losing to John McEnroe in the Wimbledon and US Open finals in 1981, only appearing in a few side tournaments thereafter. He didn’t want to put himself under the stress of playing at least 10 official tournaments a year, as the tour organizers then demanded of the players. We can only guess how many titles Borg could have amassed beyond the 11 he won if he had continued playing another 10 years into his mid-30s.

Australian southpaw Rod Laver is another great player from the past who doesn’t get his due in the stats. It was at its peak during the transition era of the sixties, when professional players were barred from playing in Grand Slam tournaments. Laver won the Grand Slam in 1962, winning all four titles in the same calendar year before turning professional. He won the Grand Slam again in 1969 at the start of the Open era when major tournaments let the professionals return. No one else has ever won two Grand Slams and Laver is also the only one to have done so in the Open era. Djokovic came temptingly close last year, and Nadal is well on his way this year after winning the first two Grand Slams of 2022.

The current rivalry between the two for the mantle of GOAT is unfinished. Djokovic has a better chance of increasing his number of Grand Slam titles than Nadal, although the Spaniard continues to prove doubters wrong.

Unfortunately, for Nadal, that may hinge on how well a radiofrequency procedure works to deaden the nerves in his aching left foot. He played at Roland Garros with a foot numbed by painkiller injections and said he would not do it again due to the risk of worsening his bone disorder first diagnosed when he was just 19 year.

As for Djokovic, his main obstacles to winning more titles are the height, reach and power of the new generation of challengers, mainly Zverev and Medvedev. They will both miss Wimbledon this year – Zverev just had surgery on ankle ligaments he tore in his semi-final against Nadal at Roland Garros, which came to an abrupt end after three thrilling hours in which not even two sets were completed; Medvedev is absent due to a political decision to exclude players from Russia and Belarus in response to military action in Ukraine.

It raises the possibility of Djokovic getting the better of his grass-court rival from Spain and claiming an elusive 21st Grand Slam title. But even that would keep the GOAT question open. Of course, if Nadal wins a third Wimbledon title after an RF intervention, all will hail him as GOAT without any reservations.

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