There are a lot of words that can be used to describe Novak Djokovic, but “sloppy” usually isn’t one of them. Despite plenty of brilliance from the Serbian, he made far too many mistakes to win today. Of course, the man on the other side of the net, Rafael Nadal, may be the best in game at forcing his opponent to attempt low-percentage shots out of pure desperation.
This morning, I predicted that, in order to win the match, Nadal would need to serve well, piling up more quick service points than usual, as Djokovic is a master of neutralizing the server’s advantage. Give him a few shots, and it doesn’t matter who delivered the serve or how well they hit it.
That isn’t what happened. Nadal won fewer than one in five service points on or before his second shot. (Djokovic did a little better by that metric, but at 21%, not by much.) Instead, Rafa won the way Novak usually does: by neutralizing his opponent’s serve.
Rafa won 45% of return points today, a mark he has never before reached against Djokovic on hard courts. Even more importantly, he won return points at the same rate when Djokovic was serving at 30-30 or later. Djokovic won what would normally be an impressive number of return points: 38%. In recent years on hard courts, that was always enough to beat the Spaniard.
It was a different kind of hard-court match today, one that was decided in grueling rallies. 20% of points played today reached at least ten strokes, and Rafa won 59% of them. Of points that finished more quickly, Djokovic simply gave away too many. By my unofficial (and rather strict) count, he hit over 60 unforced errors, more than double Nadal’s total.
Too many of those sloppy shots came at crucial moments. A bad forehand miss on a mid-court sitter gave Nadal set point in the third set, which Rafa converted on the first try. Serving down a break in the fourth at 1-4, Djokovic quickly went up 30-30, then missed his second shot on three straight points to give Nadal another break point. At 30-0 in that game, it was possible to imagine Novak clawing his way back. Once the double break was sealed, the match was over.
Djokovic showed plenty of brilliance, especially in the second and third sets, and contributed to some incredible tennis moments, including ten rallies that exceeded 20 shots. Indeed, Djokovic converted a break chance by claiming the best of those, a 54-stroke slugfest in the second set (video here). He didn’t go quietly until that dreadful game at 1-4.
By beating Djokovic at his own game, Nadal solidified his status as the most dominant player on hard courts. His undefeated record on the surface this year didn’t leave that in much doubt, but it had been three years since he won a hard-court Grand Slam. Assuming he stays healthy, even Rafa might agree that he heads to Australia as the player to beat.