Posted: Wednesday October 12, 2011 12:50PM ; Updated: Wednesday October 12, 2011 5:07PM
Jon Wertheim
Jon Wertheim>TENNIS MAILBAG

The effect of Djokovic's dominance on Nadal, Fed's absence, more mail

Story Highlights

Rafael Nadal's physical play style tends to wear him down late in the season

The stars must align perfectly for Djokovic to complete a Grand Slam in 2012

'Absence makes the heart grow fonder' doesn't apply to the long tennis season

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Rafael Nadal won just two games in the last two sets against Andy Murray in the Tokyo final.
Rafael Nadal won just two games in the last two sets against Andy Murray in the Tokyo final.
Junko Kimura/Zumapress

Rafael Nadal 0-6 in the third set last week against Andy Murray? What's going on? Is it fatigue at the end of a long year, or a sign of more to come? I'm a huge Rafa fan but have a nagging feeling that his prime days are over (even at his ripe young age). I think his style of play has done him in and an invincible Rafa is a thing of the past. Your thoughts?
--
Kris, Norwalk, Conn.

• So Monday we wrote about the Tokyo final, in the context of Murray's encouraging result. Tennis, though, is a zero sum game and for every victor there is a loser. We could just as easily have written about Nadal and his mystifying play of late. Here's a guy who won three Grand Slams in 2010 and, at the start of the year, looked to be the New King, consolidating his power.

Ten months later? Well, the 25-year-old has slipped to No. 2 in the rankings, which isn't catastrophic. But look closer. He is 0-6 against the No. 1 guy. He's won "only" one major and "only" one Masters 1000 event. A player known for his fight and mental impenetrability, Nadal last week lost a three-setter to Murray, falling painfully short on big points -- the Spaniard was 0-of-4 on break points in the second set and won only four total points in the decisive third.

Historically, Nadal tends to gear down in late summer, all that summer grinding exacting a price. And all players are beaten up and beaten down by this point in the calendar. But Nadal did win two Davis Cup matches the week after the U.S. Open. And he did look fresh in Tokyo -- no player had broken his serve until the final.

What else could it be? I think Nadal is still gobsmacked by Djokovic. Think about Nadal's career. It's been a progression of success starting at a young age. Unlike Roger Federer, there was little in the way of early underachievement or critics growing restless. Starting as a teenager, Nadal ruled clay. He still had baby fat when he helped Spain win the 2004 Davis Cup. A few months later he was French Open champion. There were a few lapses but they were attributable to injury (and his parents' marital strife), which made for some adversity, but it's different from outright losing. While there were defeats along the way, no player "had his number" or created a real matchup problem. Certainly not Federer, whom he routinely beat.

Suddenly, it's 2011, Nadal is coming off a three-Slam year and poised for domination and ... Djokovic, that pesky Serb, turns into a world-beater. He isn't intimidated. He can hang with Nadal from the baseline. The stamina issues are gone. What works so well for Nadal against Federer (the loopy spin to the one-handed backhand; the relentless pressure) doesn't register against Djokovic. Nadal loses a few times and before he knows it, it's six straight matches, including two major finals. The entire balance of power has shifted. In some ways, this must be demoralizing in the extreme, a jarringly new experience. In other ways, I suspect this invigorates Nadal and gives him a real riddle to solve. No one saw this a year ago. But now, his ability to respond to Djokovic will figure heavily in his legacy.

I say Novak Djokovic wins the Grand Slam next year. Think about it. Roger Federer is 30. Rafael Nadal hasn't beaten Djokovic once this year. Andy Murray is not ready for prime time. Djokovic won three this year and the one he didn't win (the French) is on a surface he likes. Mark my words: Novak Djokovic wins all four majors in 2012. What you do you think?
-- Charles H., Chicago

• My magic 8-ball says, "Looks fuzzy. Try again." Who knows? A year ago, you could have said the same thing about Nadal. Then he wins "just" one major in 2011 and loses in seven of 10 finals. There's no question Djokovic rules the roost right now. But so much has to go right to win ALL four of the majors. No bad day at the office. No niggling injuries. No day of catching an opponent in the zone. Could it happen? Sure. You make a good case. When a guys goes W/SF/W/W in the Slams, how do you not take him seriously? But it's hard to outright predict such an unlikely occurrence.

Where is Roger Federer? How has he been unseen in the Asia swing?
-- Joseph Goins, Chicago

• Federer, Federer, Federer. Swiss chap? Pleasant demeanor? Plays with a small racket? Likes Lindt chocolate? Name rings a bell. Yes, Federer has been laying low lately and has taken a pass on the Asian swing. Given his track record, you can't really call him out here.

But it's starting to look like Serena Williams was ahead of her time. Disagree with the structure of your Tour and number of "mandatory" events? You can fight in the court of public opinion. Or you can simply set your own schedule and deal with the fallout. It's late in the year. The players are injured. Asia is a long haul. Still, it's hard to overlook the fact that, in the first Masters event following the U.S. Open -- when the players shot Fort Sumter-style salvos -- only one of the top three men is showing up.

Why do you think someone in the ATP would consider it a good idea to etch "ATP World Tour" into the net? Ruined what would have been a great match between Murray and David Nalbandian. I had to switch off because it drew my attention rather than the match.
-- John Gallagher, Rosebud West, Victoria, Australia

• Psst. Rosebud. I see your point, but it doesn't bother me. In other sports, logos cover the playing surface, the equipment and sometimes the jerseys themselves. Some branding at the net may be an eyesore, but I put it in the "cost of doing business" department.

I completely disagree with you concerning exhibitions. Obviously, the energy spent while there is much less than at a tournament, but the travel and jet lag are exactly the same. As you mention yourself, these exhibitions are often staged in far-away places.
-- Gilbert Benoit, Ottawa, Ontario

• Exhibitions are for one night only. Big difference between a "one-off" and an event where you could play five matches in six days. And again, the mentality is totally different. Exhibitions are a dry run. There are no ranking points at stake. The media doesn't report on the result. You're almost indifferent to winning or losing. You can skate by at 80 percent. (To wit: When was the last time there was a trainer called to the court during an exo?) The person on the other side of the net is less an opponent than a partner on stage. I don't say this to denigrate exhibitions. I think they're often fun and a way to bring the sport to markets that can't (or simply don't) support a full event. But the vibe is totally different than it is for a sanctioned match.

Where can I find, in minutes the length of Roger Federer's Grand Slam matches? I have a disagreement with a friend, who says Federer has won MANY Grand Slam matches in his career that were played in under an hour. But I think -- even as much as Federer was mowing opponents down a few years there -- that very few (if any) were played that quickly. Can you help me out?
-- Kevin Lynch, Eden Prairie, Minn.

• Who else thinks that Kevin Lynch of Eden Prairie, Minn., is eating steak tonight, getting a back rub tonight or is a little wealthier tonight? Suffice it to say you have won this bet. In a best-of-five match, we're talking about winning three sets in less than 20 minutes each. Walkovers and retirements notwithstanding, that simply doesn't happen MANY times.

You can find out match duration on a player's "playing activity" page on the ATP site. So, for Federer, click on stats next to any match and you'll be able to settle the bet. One piece of good news on the data front: The ATP is working hard to upgrade its statistics -- because tennis does data the way that Alex Rodriguez does clutch hitting -- to provide fans with more in the way of analytics. Look for more data soon.

Nice '80s lyric reference. Makes me wonder how many of your readers come across a simile like "come and go like the karma chameleon," pause to knit their brows, mentally shrug and then move on. Do you get emails requesting enlightenment, or do you figure Google and Wikipedia fill those voids? BTW, is a long tennis season good for a sports writer, or would you rather have a longer offseason? Seems like those covering the NFL, MLB or NBA have 4-6 months "off," but team sports provide far more issues to cover during the offseason. It never dawned on me until now, but is it not pretty convenient to have the offseason include the end-of-year holiday season (Thanksgiving-New Year's Day)?
-- Matt Smith, Orlando, Fla.

• Google/Wikipedia sure come in handy when we come across obscure references, no? (To that I say: katchagoogoo!)

I credit Andy Roddick with this sentiment: The heart grows fonder in the offseason. When the other sports turn the power down for many months, we get caught up in "Hot Stove" talk (cue: Google/Wikipedia) and anticipation (and labor law!). By the time it's spring training or training camp, we're fired up. It's tabula rasa. Promise hangs in the air.

In the case of tennis, there's no opportunity for this refraction period, as it were. Davis Cup is over, the Christmas holidays come and go and ... presto, we're getting scores from Chennai, Doha and Australia. It's like the Torah. It just keeps going in a loop.

Here's an intriguing idea an insider threw at me last week. What happens when a company decides that it's expanded too much and wants to contract? It buys back shares. What prevents the ATP from simply buying back those smaller, less-than-relevant events that clog the fall schedule and unnecessarily prolong the season? The Tour needs a presence in Asia and China, no question about it. But should there really be a week on the calendar for Basel/Valencia or for Vienna/St. Petersburg/Montpellier? Armed with that Hamburg ruling -- which agrees with the principle that the ATP reserves the right to organize its own schedule -- you'd think this would be feasible both financially and legally. Something to think about.

 
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