Novak Djokovic: chutzpah, endurance and a US Open

It’s about two hours since Novak Djokovic outgunned Rafael Nadal in what seemed like a Christopher Nolan film. I need to watch it again to understand what exactly happened. I think I will fail.

I am reeling from the intensity with which each player pounded shot after shot, even as they extended their limbs in gravity-defying swoops, often pulverising the bejeezus out of the ball when they were off balance. I am dazed after rallies that had no business to go on for so long as audacious passes met even more audacious responses.

This could have easily been a dream. In fact, in true Nolan fashion, the Nadal-Federer-Djokovic triangle is a dream within a dream. How can Federer be the greatest of all time if he is consistently beaten by a player who may not be the greatest of all time if he is consistently beaten by a player who may not be … And so on. You get the idea.

We all knew Djokovic was No.1, we knew he had put Nadal in his place this year, we knew he was 63-2 in 2011. He had steamrolled his way through to the semi-final – his only minor hurdles being two pulsating tiebreaks with Alexandr Dolgopolov and Janko Tipsarevic.

But for me, it was the way he countered the powers of Federer and Nadal that gave him his messianic aura. When Djokovic was up against Dolgopolov – and I was fortunate to watch that game at the Louis Armstrong Stadium – he seemed like rock-solid player who had mastered the percentages.

When Djokovic was up against Federer and Nadal, he flew into orbit. This was like watching Zidane or Ronaldinho run rings around the greatest defences – a greatness that enhanced itself when up against legends.

There are several reasons to remember Djokovic’s performances at the US Open but two particularly seminal moments stand out.

On Saturday, facing two match points in the fifth set, he went for what’s been termed as The Shot. Federer serves, Djokovic lashes, the ball disappears cross-court, Djokovic confronts the partisan crowd, Federer double-faults, loses the game, loses the set, loses the match and appears dazed at the press conference.

A lot has been written about this – including Brian Phillips’ fine piece here – but what stunned me was this: Djokovic was not a low-ranked player deciding to go for broke because he had nothing to lose. Here was the best player in the world with the ballsy instinct to whiplash an almost-impossible return, one so brutal that the great Federer hardly moved in response.

So while I understand the obsession to intensely analyse Federer’s elliptical post-match comments, I am deeply interested in the kind of mind that decides to go for such a shot at that time. I know Djokovic said it was a ‘lucky shot’ but I am still amazed at the chutzpah that allowed him to even consider it. It was a shot that changed the course of the match and as Phillips wrote: “If Djokovic wins against Nadal in the final, it won’t be an exaggeration to say that it changed tennis history.”

The second, equally shocking moment, was in the fourth set of the final. Djokovic had lost a mind-numbing third set – when Nadal rose like a Phoenix and threatened to pull off the impossible with one of the great comebacks. At the start of the fourth set, Djokovic was getting medical attention at every break, his back being massaged by his trainer. His body language was uninspiring and he soon took a medical timeout when he appeared in intense pain. These were omininous signs, especially against a man of such gargantuan stamina as Nadal.

A few minutes later, Djokovic was bossing the court, lambasting forehands at the acutest angles. Nadal the jackrabbit was nowhere to be seen. Instead there was a Nadal who was gutted and bushwhacked, running on empty. By the final game, his movement was restricted to a few tired steps here, a feeble serve there. The tank was exhausted. The great Rafael Nadal had been outlasted. And this was still the fourth set.

Before today, Novak Djokovic had won two Australian Open titles and a Wimbledon. He had beaten Federer and Nadal en route to these titles. He had pulled off a similar jailbreak against Federer in last year’s US Open semi-final. He had dominated Nadal on all surfaces this year and had come back from two sets down to beat the greatest player of all time (on a surface where he has prevailed five times).

Novak Djokovic has done all this. Yet this US Open win must rank as his finest achievement. In a matter of three days he left Federer dazed and Nadal exhausted. He messed with Federer’s mind and Nadal’s stamina. He dared to confront the greatest strengths of the greatest players. And he beat them at their own game.

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41 Responses to Novak Djokovic: chutzpah, endurance and a US Open

  1. vinayvasan says:

    Your last line sums it up well. Thats exactly what he did. Phenomenal US Open, Terrific writing from you:)

    Would like your opinion on what you think on Federer’s reaction to his loss? Was it churlish or was it genuinely the reaction of a man who never thought he would lose the game

    • sidvee says:

      I found it bizarre more than anything. I mostly agree with Brian Phillips’ analysis – the fact that Federer sees order and perfection in everything – but didn’t really get his bit about ‘I don’t play tennis that way’ etc. That sounded a bit much. I guess he was basically too dazed to notice:)

  2. I could not watch the game as it was night here. But reading the various articles has actually left me tired. Of course, the scoreline is no indication of how well Nadal played but credit is due to Djokovic, he’s had a splendid year, a record without blemish.

    I’d like to see Djokovic going for the French Open to complete his career grand slam now. Nadal will not be easy to defeat, although Djokovic has done so, on ‘home soil’. Also, Federer staging a comeback, for a swansong. Man! Is next year’s tennis going to be exciting or what!

    Also, would you be able to find a link to the video of The Shot and The Confrontation? I couldn’t find it and I’d missed that match as well.

    • sidvee says:

      Won’t rule out Nole winning the french. Not the way he’s improved in the last year. And yes, I can’t wait for next year’s Aus open. It’s absolutely mouthwatering. Also, linked the video clip to the piece

  3. ashankreddy says:

    There is no better way to put it!!! “beat them at their own game” WOW!!! Am still in aw of that final.

  4. Kunal says:

    Superbly written piece!!

  5. Mehul Shah says:

    Brilliant writing – as usual.

    Best time in the history of the game to be for sure. As Bhupathi just tweeted – Fed raised the bar, Nadal found the way and Djoker has worked it out.

    Being hardcore Fed fan (know you are one too), can’t help but mention – he is not ready to give in yet, neither is Nadal. 2012 promises to be awesome fun. And its pre-season will start with year ending championship in London this Nov.

  6. Shalini Puthiyedam says:

    Your writing is always a pleasure to read. You bring to your writing an intensity, an honesty and the wonder of a child at all times. I read you for the last thing most of the times. Thank you and do keep at it.

  7. Abhi 2.0 says:

    Great writing … for dead tree based media, but this is the INTERNET – you can’t write such a great piece and then leave the reader to do the hard work of finding the THE SHOT on youtube:). Appending this link at the end of the piece will help:

  8. Aditya Sethuraman says:

    First – Still basking in the brilliance of Djokovic’s victory, what a moment!
    Second – Great piece, love the writing, no flowery prose, but still no less effusive; spot on with the punchlines and analogies:)
    Third – +1 on this being a great time in men’s tennis – it has been a great time ever since the Federer:Nadal rivalry sparked into life and with the Djoker we are now just being spoilt, how can it get better than this?

  9. “In a matter of three days he left Federer dazed and Nadal exhausted. He messed with Federer’s mind and Nadal’s stamina.”

    And that’s saying A LOT!

  10. Katarina Firevski says:

    I loved your article!So poetic,so true!Thank you for that!

  11. Yogesh says:


    I thought this final would be out of reach for most writers. You don’t seem to be one. Especially the Nolan start.

    Outlasting Nadal is something…. I never even thought in my dreams that someone will do it.

    Never have i felt so tense watching a non-Federer, non-Sachin, non-Agassi sport. My mind went blank after the match. I wonder how do people manage to gather thoughts and write after such a match ?

  12. Yogesh says:

    Nadal’s post-match “I ran to every ball. I fight until the last” is as simple and understated as anyone can say about him. It was almost Sehwagesque “I was just hitting bad balls” !

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  14. DRDR says:

    I am so sick of this ridiculous claim that the “triangle” debunks the claim that Fed is G.O.A.T. If Nadal had advanced far enough in hard court slams to play Fed at his hard court peak, then there is no sizeable H2H Slam edge for Nadal and no triangle paradox. Are we also going to claim in a 100 years that Fed is not G.O.A.T. because anyone could win a match against his rotted corpse? Please.

    • sidvee says:

      If you read the whole piece, I have clearly said Federer is GOAT. I was only talking of the discussion around GOAT when it comes to the triangle (in my view there is no doubt who is GOAT but the fact is that the debate is very much being played out)

  15. Carla Smith says:

    Brilliant. Thank-you. Exhausted today, and in numbed recovery mode. Was proud to be a tennis player last night. Proud to be associated with such a sport. A while ago Brad Gilbert said, of Nole’s year, “Most amazing thing about Nole, when you’re on a streak the brain doesn’t know how to lose, no matter what the body is saying to it.” Thank-you again for putting words to magic.

  16. Reading your blog is the 2nd best thing to seeing the match. And just one more thing about your writing. Not sure whether you know or not – but your blog is posted (with due credits of course) on the bulletin board of the company where I work in and peopel have discussions around it and have splendid things to say about your writing as usual:)
    Just thought you should know this .

  17. litterateuse says:

    I always enjoy a good tennis match, but have never particularly regretted missing one (or missing them all for that matter). This post actually makes me want to go back in time and watch it.

    Your writing is so real, Sid. Sharing this.


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  19. Sriram says:

    My advisor once told me that we must write academic papers only when we have something interesting to say. And, when we have something interesting to say, we must say it well. I think of that every time I read your blogs. The occasional long pauses between blogs keeps me looking out for something special and you never disappoint. Both your recent tennis pieces were brilliant. Thanks!

    • sidvee says:

      Thanks Sriram. It’s difficult to follow that advice if you’re a full-time sportswriter but I think it works well for those like me writing once in a while.

      • Sriram says:

        True, unless you are a writer on Pakistan cricket — there are probably too many interesting things then (not to take anything away from Osman Samiuddin’s brilliance).

  20. Srivathsa says:

    It is my great pleasure to correct u Sidvee:) [Before today, Novak Djokovic had won two Australian Open titles and a Wimbledon. He had beaten Federer and Nadal en route to these titles.] Djokovic only beat Federer and Nadal in the same slam in this US Open. 2008 Aus – Nadal lost to Tsonga semis. 2011 Aus – Nadal lost to Ferrer – Quarters. 2011 Wimbledon – Fed lost to Tsonga – Quarters. Just saying. A great piece from u. Superbly crafted. Thanks.

  21. Tanmay Patil says:

    Best times for tennis ?? In terms of competition in top 4.. yes. In term of quality with variety of tennis? NO… You summed it all for today’s tennis when you said nadal got outlasted by Djoko.. Gone are the days when class players clashed with different set of skills and showered us with REAL entertainment.. All i see today is a slugfest from the baseline with the player with BEST DEFENSE winning it most of the times.. Federer is probably the last of the players in the classic mold who still depends more on his offense .. this is infact probably a very dangerous time for tennis when almost every upcoming player is coming out like a clone of these baseline bullies..

    And yes not to forget the green clay at wimbledon and now the BLUE clay of US open making the situation even worse.The tournament organizers have also joined in this party by deliberately slowing down once faster surfaces. For a tennis fan like me who has been watching it regularly for last 25 years or so, it really pains to see when players with their superior Racquet strings technology keep hitting those monster top spinners all around, the shot which did not matter much just 15 years back..

    I would just say… bring players like Becker, Edberg, Mcenroe, Sampras back into tennis… Tennis needs them the most now.

  22. arzvi says:

    Reading this after the day Djoker won Aussie open 2012, after the longest finals in open era and a day after the gruelling 5 hour match vs the Scott and 4 days after the gruelling running versus the spainyard Ferrer, makes me feel we have the next tennis superstar here.

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