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Great Years for Nadal and Murray, One Wincing Moment for Djokovic
Novak Djokovic after he won the ATP World Tour Finals against Rafael Nadal in London this month. He had a brilliant year, but still ended up ranked No. 2 in the world.
KIRSTY WIGGLESWORTH / ASSOCIATED PRESS
By CHRISTOPHER CLAREY
November 22, 2013
As it turned out, the Davis Cup final that ended Nov. 17 with the Czech Republic beating Serbia was in perfect harmony with the rest of the tennis season.
Novak Djokovic played well, even brilliantly, and still ended up No. 2.
So it went in a year that despite all of Djokovic’s earthly achievements and supernatural flexibility will belong in the history books and the memory banks to Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray.
Nadal was both the player of the year and comeback player of the year, brimming with urgency and accuracy after serious knee problems and winning 10 titles — six on clay and four on outdoor hardcourts — while compiling a 75-7 record.
Andy Murray after defeating Novak Djokovic in the men's final at Wimbledon in July.
KERIM OKTEN / EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY
Murray secured himself a permanent place of privilege in his class-conscious island nation by beating Djokovic to become the first British man in 77 years to win Wimbledon (his book “Seventy-Seven” is now available for purchase).
But in the calm of November, one cannot help but wonder how 2013 might have turned out if the wild eighth game of the fifth set of Djokovic’s French Open semifinal against Nadal had unfolded just a bit differently.
At that stage, Djokovic was still up a break of serve and looking perfectly prepared to become only the second man to beat Nadal at Roland Garros.
At that stage, too, Djokovic’s chances of winning the only Grand Slam singles title he lacks looked better than ever, considering that either Jo-Wilfried Tsonga or David Ferrer was certain to be across the net in the final.
Rafael Nadal celebrating after defeating Novak Djokovic in an epic semifinal at the French Open in June.
VINCENT KESSLER / REUTERS
The wind was gusting in Paris during that eighth game, sending red clay swirling into the air near the baselines, and Nadal earned his first break point with a forehand winner down the line that left Djokovic spreading his arms in supplication and down 30-40.
But the Serb would dodge that danger when Nadal mis-hit a forehand and then twisted away with clenched fists and howled in frustration.
That was a rare sight. Nadal is a man who usually runs (and runs) on positive energy. And there would be more exotica on the very next point as the acrobatic Djokovic, in control of the exchange but oddly not of his balance, put away a high volley and collided with the net before his would-be winner had bounced a second time.
The French chair umpire Pascal Maria correctly applied the rules. Instead of “Advantage Djokovic” it was “Advantage Nadal,” and though Djokovic boldly pushed forward again to save a second break point, he would lose the next rally when Nadal produced a screaming backhand winner and then lose his serve by dumping a forehand into the net.
The set and the suspense continued to build, but Djokovic never won more than a point in any of Nadal’s remaining service games and eventually cracked first as the Spaniard broke him again with help from a botched overhead to finish off his 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7 (3-7), 9-7 victory.
The final against Ferrer indeed proved to be a straight-set afterthought, as Nadal secured his eighth French Open title, but the thought of how 2013 would have played out for Djokovic and Nadal if that eighth game had turned out differently is harder to shake.
Tennis at its highest reaches often feels like a zero-sum confidence game, with the stars exchanging the available capital. Djokovic might have felt unstoppable with the boost in belief acquired from completing a career Grand Slam and just might have had the requisite oomph to complete a single-season Grand Slam with the first two legs in his possession after winning in Australia.
Instead it was Nadal, after absorbing the shock of his first-round loss to Steve Darcis at Wimbledon, who became the year’s major player: sweeping all before him in the summer hard-court season and beating Djokovic again in a four-set United States Open final.
Djokovic certainly struck back with conviction, but his sensational run after New York — 24 straight victories, including two over Nadal and 11 more over top-10 opponents — came too late to rewrite the heart of the 2013 narrative.
“Well, we both had great seasons, especially him,” Djokovic said of Nadal in London, where Djokovic successfully defended his title indoors at the ATP World Tour Finals.
In the end, his head-to-head record for the year with Nadal was 3-3, but Djokovic also made long-form magic with lesser opponents, particularly those intent on taking big baseline risks against him.
He played and won five-set classics with Stanislas Wawrinka at the Australian Open and United States Open. He beat Juan Martín del Potro in five sets in the Wimbledon semifinals in a match that was actually more entertaining, from start to finish, than Djokovic’s clash with Nadal in Paris, and then held off del Potro again in a terrific Shanghai final full of acute angles and raw power.
Murray, who had struggled to find top gear in the earlier stages of the tournament, clearly benefited from del Potro’s exertions against Djokovic at Wimbledon. The final was a physical three-set match in which Djokovic appeared a few arrows short of a full quiver.
But then Murray, to his full credit, rose to this occasion, much as he had on the same patch of lawn in winning the 2012 Olympic gold medal against Roger Federer. Murray served with authority, broke Djokovic seven times and, as if to emphasize the energy gap on that historic Sunday, chased down drop shot after drop shot down the stretch as he fought through the nerves and three lost match points to finish off Djokovic and that 77-year hex.
“That last game will be the toughest game I’ll play in my career, ever,” Murray said.
It is hard to argue, even if Murray is still just 26 with — spirit and dodgy back willing — many more Wimbledons to come.
Djokovic, also 26, has no such tournament in his own country; no such highly publicized national drought in need of relief.
But he does have his ever-more personal quest at the French Open, and for all his victories and bravado in the final weeks of 2013, he must still have his private moments when he flashes back to that eighth game in June and winces.http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/23/sports/tennis/great-years-for-nadal-and-murray-one-wincing-moment-for-djokovic.html?_r=0