In tennis, a backhand half-volley is often called a thing of beauty. It requires exquisite timing and exceptional feel, and when you pull it off it looks like the work of pure genius. Aside from the tweener, no shot gets the crowd going quite like a perfectly struck half-volley.
So why weren’t the Rod Laver Arena spectators gasping in amazement every time Novak Djokovic hit a backhand half-volley during the Australian Open final? Here's why: it was because he did it so often, it ceased to remain something out of the ordinary. Instead, it became routine.
That should give you a fair insight into how Djokovic managed to so thoroughly outclass Rafael Nadal in Sunday’s high-octane clash. What was supposed to be a five-hour epic, turned into a two-hour clinic – a clinic that perfectly showcased Djokovic’s ability to make the extraordinary look mundane.
The jury is still out on whether Djokovic’s half-volleys look beautiful. But the verdict is in anyway: beautiful doesn’t win you Grand Slams. What does win you Grand Slams is intricate planning and immaculate execution, and the Serb had both of those things down pat on his way to his record-breaking seventh Australian Open title.
Typically, Nadal vs Djokovic matches are bruising groundstroke battles, with both players planting themselves a few feet behind the baseline and retrieving everything that comes their way. But Nadal was playing a different brand of tennis this fortnight; he was constantly looking to land the first big blow, aided as he was by his suddenly-potent serve, and many thought he would give Djokovic plenty of headaches if he did the same thing in the final.
So Djokovic did what only an insanely gifted athlete like him could do: get on top of the baseline before Nadal could even think of landing a blow, let alone a big one.
The Serb simply refused to back down; he wouldn’t concede his court positioning no matter what Nadal did at the other side of the net. He knew he was quick enough to cut off the angles even if Nadal went on the offensive, so he stood his ground and batted away all of the Spaniard’s topspin-heavy firepower with a calmness that bordered on the ridiculous.
When Nadal did hit a shot deep enough that would push any normal human being back, Djokovic merely shortened his backswing and half-volleyed the ball back with interest. He almost looked like the Hulk with his insistence on hugging the baseline; an imposing presence that no mortal could get past.
That newfound eagerness to take the ball early and deprive the opponent of time was also visible in Djokovic’s returning on the day. Before the match there was a lot of talk about Nadal’s new serve, and how it had been winning him so many free points. But Djokovic either didn’t hear that talk or chose to ignore it, because he adopted a return stance that would have been more appropriate while dealing with Sara Errani’s serve.
It’s one thing to strategise though, and quite another to execute. Djokovic had all the right ideas about how to counter Nadal’s new, aggressive game. But did he have enough commitment and conviction to see his plans through in such a high-pressure situation?
Nine unforced errors over three sets tells the story. Another remarkable stat: Nadal won a ludicrously low 51% of his first serve points, effectively killing his new weapon before it had even been loaded.
Not only was Djokovic playing with a boldness that had rarely, if ever, been seen from him before, he was also making all of his gambles pay off. The World No 1 was nearly flawless with his shot-making, refusing to cough up any errors despite employing a high-risk strategy. There’s really nothing anyone can do to counter that kind of brilliance.
Djokovic did have a little help from Nadal, who was uncharacteristically nervous at the start of the match. The 17-time Slam champion just couldn’t find his fiercest forehands in the first set. He didn’t seem to have the confidence to go on the attack, and his down-the-line forehand was all but AWOL. A low first serve percentage didn’t help either; Nadal was barely making 60% of first serves in the first set, and over the next two sets he started aiming for safer targets, with predictably disastrous results.
But you wonder whether Nadal would have had any chance of winning on Sunday even if he had been playing his best. While the Spaniard’s forehand errors helped Djokovic at the start, by the second set he wasn’t even being given the chance to make errors. The Serb went on an absolute roll by the middle of the match; he was rifling winners from practically every position on the court, looking as close to perfection as any player has ever looked.
The scoreline read a barely believable 6-3, 6-2, 6-3, but so complete was Djokovic’s dominance that it could actually have been much worse. This win will find a place in the record books for several reasons, not least of which is that it has made Djokovic the most successful player in Melbourne ever, while also bringing him to within five Majors of Roger Federer’s record of 20. But it will also go down in history for a reason completely unrelated to records and statistics; it will be remembered for being one of the very few instances when an all-time great was made to look like a rank amateur.
That last bit is of particular significance considering what is coming up in the next few months. Djokovic has won three Majors on the trot, and will be going for a second ‘Novak Slam’ at the French Open in May. You’d think a win like this would give him the confidence to challenge Nadal on clay again, something he hasn’t done since 2015.
There’s another thing that a win like this can do: send a wave of shivers among the rest of the field. Djokovic has in recent times shown a certain vulnerability against young power hitters, but if he can continue standing so close to the baseline and taking time away from his opponents, it’s difficult to imagine him having too much trouble against them in the immediate future. The willingness to take more risks and shorten the points also bodes well for his longevity – he could possibly be dominating the Majors for many more years to come.
Maybe that is what will elicit the gasps from us, even if his incredible half-volleys don’t. By making the impossible look routine with his day-to-day and minute-to-minute brilliance, and by doing that for so many years together, Djokovic is charting a story as astonishing as any that’s ever been seen. It may not be a thing of beauty, but it is a thing of wonder.
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Updated Date: Jan 27, 2019 20:43:25 IST