Saturday, May 19, 2018

In Rome, Djokovic Plays His Best Tennis of the Year but Still Comes Up Short Against Nadal

Damian got up to watch, but it still wasn't enough to curse his (other) man, Rafael Nadal, from winning against Novak Djokovic today in Rome. After clinching a nail-biting 73-minute first set, it was more like business as usual for the King of Clay, who won 7-6(4), 6-3.

Still, Tennis is all but declaring it the return of Big 4 tennis -- with its "dazzling rallies, careening athleticism, ambition and sportsmanship in (mostly) equal measures."
“I missed it,” Novak Djokovic said today, speaking for just about every tennis fan. 
With Andy Murray sidelined, Djokovic struggling, and Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer seemingly residing on separate tours this season, it had been a while since we were treated to tennis royalty going toe to toe. It had been even longer since we had seen the most hard-fought of all the Big 4 rivalries, Nadal vs. Djokovic, give us an old-fashioned, knock-down, drag-out battle. The last of them had come two years ago in Rome, when Nole held off Rafa in two tight, thrilling, see-saw sets.

Rafa and Nole have played 51 times -- with the latter now holding a one match advantage --  more than any other male pair of the Open Era. Everyone likes to talk about the Nadal-Federer "rivalry," but I've always said that their head-to-head in majors is so lopsided -- a la Sampras vs. Agassi -- that I hardly thought it counted. Nadal and Djokovic, on the other hand, are closer to the real deal, although each of them seems to have dominated the other when the loser was at a relatively low point in his career. (Or did the other's ascent cause this slip?) There's no guarantee that Djokovic is (or will ever fully be) back. But it's a good sign. Here's hoping we have a few years where they're both playing top-level tennis ahead of them. The men's game sorely needs it.

Nadal now plays Alexander Zverev in the final, fresh off his win in Madrid. He's still very young and talented, but even a win tomorrow won't convince me he's best-of-five material until he finally does it on the big stage.

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