Heading into this afternoon’s final singles match of the 2010 Grand Slam tennis season, the biggest question for me between our two finalists, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, is fitness.
We know Rafael Nadal will come into today’s US Open men’s final feeling about as fit and ready as he’s ever been in New York. But what about Novak Djokovic?
The Serb completed his dramatic 3-hour, 44-minute 5-set win over Roger Federer in the early evening last night, which gives him less than 24 hours to recover for his super showdown in a few hours at 4:30pm against Rafa.
Again, it was one of the best performances from Novak I’ve ever seen but I just don’t know if he has enough time to recharge his legs, his body and his mind back to full strength.
“It’s finals of the Grand Slam,” Djokovic said. “I’ve been in this situation before in 2007, so I’m more experienced than Rafa. But it’s gonna be definitely a tough one. Rafa is just playing fantastic tennis. He’s gonna be very motivated to win this title because it’s the only title he hasn’t won in majors.
“I will do anything that comes up to your mind legally recovery-wise,” he joked. “I will do it. You know, I cannot go to the details too much. Emotional recovery with my girlfriend, and a couple of things that I cannot talk about. It’s not what you think. I know what you’re thinking.”
What I am thinking is that Nadal is the very last guy you want to play with weary legs. That said, I hope Novak can recover because if he somehow is 100% fit and healthy the 23-year-old has an excellent crack at Nadal. On hard courts, Djokovic has won seven of 10 meetings against Nadal and he’s won their last three meetings on the surface.
So Novak should have the knowledge and confidence – especially after finally beating Federer – to take it to Rafa. And we know his game actually matches up well with Nadal on many levels, especially on the US Open courts.
Fitness aside, the match for me teeters on Djokovic’s first serve and Nadal’s second serve. If Novak can maintain a high first serve percentage – into the upper 60/70% range – he’s got a chance. If he serves poorly giving Nadal generous helpings of second serve looks he’ll be in serious trouble.
Novak will also have to attack Rafa’s second serve. We know Nadal is going to be mistake-free off the ground and he’s going to have a good serving day with his new, more powerful delivery – he’s only dropped serve twice. But Nadal’s sub-90mph second serve is still vulnerable especially by players like Djokovic who has pontent, if not underrated, return game.
So if Novak can serve well (i.e., hold with some ease) he can take more chances on Rafa’s serve and maybe get a peak or two at break chances.
Mentally, though Nadal is just so tough in situations when so much is on the line, and for Rafa this arguably could be the biggest match of his career to date. And it hard to see him letting this opportunity slip by. Just three sets, 15 or so service holds.
As for my pick, had Djokovic enjoyed an extra day off or at the very least the luxury of an easy straight-set semifinal win, I think I would actually pick him here. Again, he’s owned Nadal on the hardcourts and even though Nadal’s has looked phenomenal this week, I still have doubts about the level opposition he’s faced thus far and the very fact that he hasn’t won a hardcourt title in some 18 months still gives me slight pause.
Djokovic has been battle-tested and he’s won matches over players who excelled this summer – Fish, Federer. So based on strength of competition, Novak gets the edge.
And in some ways the quick turnaround and his underdog status might help ease the pressure on Novak, who I’m sure few if any expect to win. So while mentally he may not be the freshest, he should at least be clear in his mind and free with his racquet.
But it’s hard to discount Djokovic’s energy level although there is hope. There is a chance of rain today and with it a possibility for a third straight Monday final. However, if the match is played as scheduled I cannot see him being at 100% after yesterday’s monster win.
It is a bit of an injustice that players are forced to play the semifinals and finals on consecutive days to win the US Open (Federer even touched on it yesterday). Some day that will change, unfortunately for Djokovic, unless Mother Nature intervenes again, it won’t be soon enough.
I said at the start of the tournament that Nadal’s biggest obstacle was the schedule, fortunately for him with his path and Djokovic’s 5-setter it ultimately and ironically may very well work in his favor.
So I like Nadal completing his career Slam today by capturing his first US Open in four, maybe even three sets. And Spain’s summer reign culminates with Nadal taking a another bite out of history.
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