Rafa’s Move

A year ago, Rafael Nadal was on top of the tennis world. He’d just polished off Novak Djokovic in the U.S. Open final, capping off a spectacular year in which he also won the French Open and Wimbledon and secured the number one ranking.

Fully recovered from the knee injuries which plagued him in 2009, he distanced himself from his arch nemesis, Roger Federer, who at age 29 was clearly on the downside of his career, and reasserted his dominance over Djokovic, the other threat to his throne. Still just 24, the Spaniard seemed poised to reign over men’s tennis for the next few years.

Djokovic always had as much talent as Nadal, but hadn’t been able to break through against two of the game’s all-time greats, Federer and Nadal. His arsenal included a powerful and accurate serve, an excellent return of serve and a dangerous forehand, but his backhand was inconsistent. In his matches against Federer and Nadal the deciding factors were often stamina and confidence. Federer and Nadal had them and Djokovic didn’t.

Tired of finishing second or third, Nole used last offseason to revamp his body and his game. He worked on his backhand and adpoted a gluten-free diet, which improved his stamina. His confidence seemed to follow. The new and improved Djokovic made his debut  at the 2011 Australian Open, where he desposed of Federer in straight sets in the semi-finals, then easily defeated number four seed Andy Murray for the championship.

His victory at the Aussie Open was just the beginning of what will go down as one of the greatest seasons in the open era. The Serbian came within a hiccup in the semi-finals of the French against Federer short of the Grand Slam. He’s lost just two of his 66 matches and in July took over the number one ranking.

The French was Djokivic’s only loss to Federer this year in five meetings between the two. Last week he came back from 2 sets down and fought off two match points to defeat the former world’s number one in the semi-finals at the U.S. Open. This time it was Federer who grew visibly fatigued as the match wore on.

Two days later Nole beat Nadal in the final for his first U.S. Open title. Prior to this year, Nadal had a 16-7 edge over Djokovic and was 5-0 against him in tournament finals and 5-0 in Grand Slams. This year the two have met six times, all in tournament finals and Djokovic has won them all, including the finals of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Two of the matches even took place on clay, Nadal’s best surface.

The Djoker didn’t just win those matches, he beat Nadal decisively. He took out the defending champ in four sets at Wimbledon and Nadal barely eked out a tiebreaker at the Open. Nobody has ever pushed Nadal around the court the way Nole did Monday night. Nadal admitted after Wimbledon that Djokovic is in his head and he appeared uncharacteristically unsettled on the court during their latest match.

The challenge for Djokovic now is to maintain his focus and desire. It’s easier to get to number one than to stay there. The potential distractions multiply, there’s to prove and he’s now being hunted by all the other top players on the tour. John McEnroe, the last male to produce a season comparable to Djokovic’s, when he went 82-3 in 1984, admitted that he became distracted by his celebrity status, and was never nearly the same player again.

History indicates that it will be nearly impossible for Nole to duplicate his sensational season, though assuming he remains healthy and focused, he may continue to rule men’s tennis for the foreseeable future. Federer is in his 30’s now and Murray lacks the firepower and fortitude to knock off the big boys. Nadal is the one man who can challenge him for that number one spot, at least until a new young champion bubbles up.

Nadal is just one year older than Djokovic. He’s a fierce competitor and has at least one weapon, his whip-like forehand, which can hurt the Serbian. But other aspects of his game were exposed in the U.S. Open final, most notably his first serve, which lacked the zip that was so effective during his 2010 U.S. Open run, leaving him vulnerable to Djokovic’s devastating returns. While his backhand is more than adequate against almost everybody else on the tour, he’s not able to match the hummers down-the-line that Djokovic unleashes on him.

Nadal has vastly improved his game before. The “King of Clay” learned to flatten out his strokes on faster surfaces, allowing him to finally beat Federer at Wimbledon, and an additional 10-15 MPH’s on his first serve got him over the hump at the U.S. Open last year. Now he needs to continue you work on his serve, add a little pop to his backhand and learn to take the ball on the rise against Djokovic in order to dictate the tempo of the points and keep his rival on the defensive.

Nadal and Djokovic are two superb champions with the potential to echo the great rivalries of Borg-McEnroe, Sampras-Agassi and Federer-Nadal. Players of their caliber usually bring out the best in each other. Rafa’s stellar 2010 campaign forced Nole to take his game to another level. Djokovic countered with the most dominant season in recent memory. It’s Rafa’s move.

Jimbo’s Magical Run: 20 Years Later

by Paul Knepper

Tennis can be a lonely sport. You’re all alone on the court. There’s nobody there to share the joy of victory or burden of defeat. There’s no one to lean on when you’re tired or to commiserate with on the road. That was especially true for Jimmy Connors who made a point of distancing himself from the other members of the tour.

Such isolation lends itself to the possibility of an emotional connection between athletes and fans which doesn’t exist in team sports. Occasionally an individual athlete develops such synergy with the crowd that they feed off each other’s energy and elevate one another to greater heights. Muhammad Ali did it with the people of Zaire when he fought George Foreman in 1974 and Jimmy Connors achieved it with the New York crowd at the 1991 U.S. Open.

Connors was born and raised in East St. Louis, Illinois, but for all intents and purposes he became  a New Yorker. He played his best tennis at the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows, Queens, where he won five of his eight grand slam titles, and was the only player to win the tournament on three different surfaces (The Open was played on grass until 1975, then switched to clay for three years, before changing to hard court in 1978.)

New Yorkers embraced him as one of their own. They saw a bit of themselves in the feisty left-hander with the indomitable will. Connors didn’t try and out finesse his opponents with tons of topspin or a delicate touch; he came right at them with his flat ground strokes and kept them on the defensive by taking the ball on the rise.

Fans appreciated that Jimbo wore his emotions on his sleeve and responded in kind, boisterously exhorting their hero on. Connors returned the favor with a smile and a wave or by cracking jokes for the cameras. He fed off the energy in the stands, which ramped the New York crowd up even more.

Jimmy had been ranked #1 in the world several times, once for 160 consecutive weeks, and won a record 109 tournaments, but after battling injuries in 1990 and 1991 he was ranked 174th and had to win a qualifying match just to gain entrance to the ’91 U.S. Open. The tournament began a week shy of his 39th birthday; in a sport in which 30 is ancient, nobody expected him to advance very far. But Jimbo never gave a damn what other people thought. He’d made a career out of defying the odds.

In the first round Connors faced Patrick McEnroe, younger brother of his longtime nemesis John. Patrick was no slouch himself, ranked 35th in the world and playing the best tennis of his career. Behind a strong serve and volley game, he captured the first two sets and took a 3-0 lead in the third.

The old man was short of breath and the crowd at Louis Armstrong Stadium had started shuffling out. John McEnroe admitted the next day that he changed the channel, believing the match was over. Up Love-40 in the fourth game, Patrick was about to put the nail in Jimmy’s coffin.

Suddenly, Connors discovered the fountain of youth. He zeroed in on Patrick’s serve, began stringing together points and came back to win the third set. Spurred on by the rapture of the fans that had remained, he finished McEnroe off 6-2, 6-4. The match lasted four hours and 18 minutes and ended at 1:35am.

Jimbo won his next two matches in straight sets, knocking off Michiel Schapers and the # 10 seed Karel Novacek. The energy of the crowd multiplied with each win and nobody on the tour knew how to create and harness that energy like Connors. It seemed to sustain him as he advanced through the tournament, compensating for the lack of juice in his legs.

As Jimbo took the court on his 39th birthday for his fourth-round contest against fellow American Aaron Krickstein, the fans at Louis Armstrong Stadium greeted him with a rendition of “Happy Birthday.” He needed them more than ever if he was going to beat the 24-year-old Krickstein.

Connors and Krickstein split the first two sets. Jimbo looked exhausted as he fell behind early in the third and made the risky decision to tank the set in order to preserve his energy for the fourth and fifth sets. The fourth went according to plan, but in the fifth set the younger Krickstein had Jimbo on the ropes at 5-2.

Once again, Connors came storming back. After big points he pumped his fist and the fans responded with a rousing ovation. At one point in the fifth set Jimmy looked into the camera and relayed the sentiment of the crowd, “This is what they paid for! This is what they want!” Krickstein was overwhelmed by the Connors mystique and the roars cascading down from the stands and Connors closed out the match in a fifth set tiebreaker.

After four hours and 42 minutes, the old warrior pointed to the crowd on all sides of the court to express his gratitude for their support. It was as if he was saying, “this is your victory too.” After the match, John McEnroe went to the locker room to congratulate his old rival. “I’ve got to go in there and touch him and see if he bleeds” Mac said.

Connors’ next opponent, in the quarterfinals, was Dutchman Paul Haarhuis, who had defeated #1 seed Boris Becker earlier in the tournament. Once again Jimmy fell behind, losing the first set, and trailed 5-4 in the second, with Haarhuis serving at 30-15, two points from winning the set.

It was unlikely that Connors’ could endure another five-set match so he had to make his move. He won the next two points, then delivered the most memorable sequence in U.S. Open history:

Haarhuis charged the net behind a strong backhand and all Connors could do was lob it back. Haarhuis slammed an overhead to Connors’ backhand side and Connors, back to the wall, lobbed it over again. Haarhuis smashed a second overhead and Connors was able to backhand it high into the air once more. This time, Haarhuis slammed the ball to Connors’ forehand side. Looking as spry as ever, the old man lunged to his left and lobbed it back.

By this point, Haarhuis was exhausted and his next overhead was his weakest. Connors pounced on the opportunity and drilled a crosscourt forehand. Haarhuis volleyed it back and Connors crushed a backhand down the line to win the point.

Connors unleashed a flurry of passionate fist pumps as the exalted crowd jumped to its feet and roared with appreciation. If the rally symbolized Jimbo’s indomitable will, then the ecstatic look on his face afterwards reflected his unparalleled love for the game.

The astonishing rally left Haarhuis emotionally drained. Connors won the third set in a tiebreaker and closed out the match 6-4, 6-2. Louis Armstrong Stadium erupted after the final point and once more Jimmy gave thanks to his fans.

The fountain of youth dried up in the semifinals, as Connors fell to Jim Courier in straight sets. Stefan Edberg won the tournament, but it was Connors who made it a U.S. Open to remember. For 11 days he enraptured every one who was there or tuned in to watch and those of us who did will never forget it.

The Greatest Show in Sports

by Paul Knepper

Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal doesn’t have the pageantry of the Super Bowl, the tradition of Michigan vs. Ohio State or the rancor of Red Sox – Yankees; what makes their matches so spectacular is the quality of play. Theirs is a rivalry built on brilliance and artistry, desire and power, spins and angles. It’s two legendary warriors battling for every point, until one champion is left standing.

Together Federer and Nadal have dominated men’s tennis for the past eight years. From the the 2003 Wimbledon through the 2010 U.S. Open they won 25 of 30 majors and one of the two has been seeded number one at the last 30 Grand Slam tournaments.

Federer is considered by many to be the greatest tennis player of all-time. From his feathery touch on half-volleys to his lethal forehand, never has an athlete made the sublime look so ordinary. He has no holes in his game and has prevailed on every surface. The Switzerland native  holds the men’s record for most Grand Slam titles, with 16, and his 23 consecutive semi-finals appearances in Grand Slams may be the most remarkable feat in all of sports.

Whereas Federer is the epitome of grace, Nadal is like a bull, who flattens opponents as much with his sheer will as his crushing ground strokes. Born and raised on the Spanish Island of Majorca, Nadal developed a fierce whipping motion on his forehand which creates a heavy topspin ideal for clay surfaces. The southpaw has won six of the seven French Opens he’s entered and at the age of 25 is already considered the greatest clay court player ever. Over the past few years, increased velocity on his serve and an improved net game have enabled him to translate his success to other surfaces.

Federer and Nadal have clashed 25 times since 2004, with Nadal winning 17 of them, though the majority of their matches have been played on clay. Nineteen of those took place in the finals of a tournament, including 8 Grand Slam finals. In the early years, the edge belonged to Federer, then in his prime and nearly unstoppable on grass and hard court.

The 2008 Wimbledon was the turning point in the ongoing feud. Nadal was 22-years-old and his game was beginning to click on all cylinders. He had pushed Federer to five sets in the Wimbledon final the year before, and though the five-time defending champion showed no signs of slowing down, there was a sense that it might be the young Spaniard’s time.

The drama of the finals matchups between Federer and Nadal is inherent in the nature of the tournament. For two weeks, the excitement rises and pressure mounts as fans witness stellar shot making and five set contests in anticipation of the two champions on different sides of the bracket facing off at the end.

It’s a crescendo similar to the Final Four in the NCAA Tournament, except these  men stand alone. They don’t have any teammates to share the spotlight or the blame, to confer with about strategy or lean on during difficult stretches. They live inside their own heads, relying on the discipline, intelligence, focus, determination, resilience, confidence and courage that got them there.

Federer and Nadal cruised to the 2008 Wimbledon finals. What ensued was a match no tennis fan will ever forget; the two champions at the height of their powers slugged it out for a thrilling five sets. Nadal was nearly flawless as he grabbed the first two sets, but the five-time defending champion would not go quietly. He clawed his way into the match and though unable to convert on several break points, won the third and fourth sets in tie-breakers.

The fifth set was awe-inspiring, with seemingly every point ending on a stunning winner.  With darkness threatening, Nadal finally captured the fifth set 9-7, and promptly collapsed on his back in utter joy. The match was the longest Wimbledon final ever at 4 hours and 48 minutes. Three-time Wimbledon champion and commentator John McEnroe, himself a one time participant in a five set finals thriller against Bjorn Borg on that same court, was one of many people to declare it the greatest match they’d ever seen.

The rivalry has taken on another dimension over the past few years, as both men have made themselves more vulnerable and revealed a fondness for one another. Devastated that his best effort was no longer enough to beat Nadal, Federer broke down in tears after losing to his rival in the finals of the 2009 Australian Open. Nadal responded by putting his arm around his opponent and went out of his way to praise Federer, stating that he would certainly break Pete Sampras’s record of 14 Grand Slam titles. Federer, for his part, calls Nadal by his nickname Rafa.

Nadal still routinely refers to Federer as the greatest player of all-time and it’s difficult to argue with him. What’s become equally apparent is that Nadal is one of the five greatest players ever himself. When else have two of the top five players in the history of an individual sport faced off against each other? Perhaps Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. That may be the best analogy for the Federer-Nadal rivalry, the 2008 Wimbledon final was their Thrilla in Manilla.

In August of 2008, Nadal secured the world number one ranking and never looked back. Federer, who turned 27 that summer, began to slip just a bit, though he was far from done. In fact, he rallied to win the French Open and Wimbledon the following year. Nadal had gained the upper hand in the rivalry, though the clashes remained as intense as ever.

The two champions most recently squared off at the Finals of the French Open earlier this month. Novak Djokovic had been the big story heading into the tournament due to his undefeated record this calendar year. The Serbian was seeded number two behind Nadal and if he had beaten Federer in the semi-finals would have been the number one player in the world. Perhaps inspired by the doubters, Federer turned in his best performance in years and knocked off Djokovic in four sets.

His finals matchup with Nadal was riveting once again. Federer was surgical early in the first set, moving the Spaniard around by mixing up speeds, spins and location. He had Nadal on the ropes, up 5-2, but lost the next five games and the set. It looked like Nadal might roll over him at that point, but a proud Federer continued to fight. He surprised Nadal with well disguised drop shots and swung away for the corners, ripping several backhands down the line for winners.

Equally impressive was Nadal’s ability to run down and return many of those shots. Federer lost a heartbreaking second set tiebreaker, but rallied to take the third 7-5. Then Nadal took control of the tempo with his powerful ground strokes and pounded Federer into submission, 6-1 in the fifth, for his sixth French crown.

Wimbledon begins on Monday, with Federer and Nadal both chasing history. Federer is pursuing his seventh Wimbledon crown, which would tie him with Sampras for the most ever, and Rafa is chasing Federer. With ten Grand Slams of his own, Roger’s 16 is in his sites. Nadal is the number one seed and Federer number three, so if they meet once again it will be in the finals. Let’s hope they do. They’re the greatest show in sports.