My 2011 US Open Hangover, Part 2: Novak’s Triumph, Rafa’s Misery!

There was barely time to get over the unsettling effect of the women’s final by the time that the men’s final began on Monday.

Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal took to the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium on a perfect Monday afternoon in New York. This would be their 6th meeting in finals for 2011, their second in a major after Wimbledon. After some pre-match pomp, pageantry and warm-ups, they promptly began beating each other senseless in some of the most brutal tennis ever witnessed.

Beyond the Baseline, an site, provided an analysis of the match with data provided by the US Open. Numbers don’t lie, and these tell the story better than words could ever. There were roughly 7 strokes in an average rally. The average rally for men in this year’s majors was only 4.5 strokes. Their longest rally lasted 31 strokes. And we’re not talking moonballs. There was pace, there were angles, and there was incredible defense-to-offense.

To win a single point in a game often meant that either man needed to almost leave blood on the court, literally as well as figuratively. By the fourth (and final) set, it was like watching a boxing match where the two fighters had beaten each other so senseless and bloody that they could barely stand up. Yet there they were still throwing and landing punches; and then they threw more punches.

For all those lucky enough to have tickets to Arthur Ashe Stadium for the final, I’m sure it probably felt very much like the scenes in “Raging Bull” where blood splattered the ringside spectators. The only difference was that, instead of punches, the blood was flying from vicious forehands and backhands.

Through it all I had hoped that Rafa would remember “Who he was”: the man who had beaten Novak the year before on the very same court. Even with my pre-match analysis hanging like a cloud over my hopes for a Rafa victory, I still had hope he could win this match. But it was not meant to be.

Even after Rafa won the third set in a tiebreak, it certainly didn’t bode well for his chances at running the table to win in 5 sets. The toll that the match was taking on both of them was obvious. Who could sustain this level of effort for an additional two more sets of tennis savagery?

I’m not sure which was worse to watch: Rafa’s comprehensive beating for the first two sets of the match, or the unimaginable fourth set where he still couldn’t manage to win points or hold serve against even an injured Novak. A clearly hobbled Djokovic, barely able to bend his back for his service motion, was still able to get the ball in play and smack winners past Rafa, who was still unable to effectively counter any of it.

There were none of the superhuman efforts that we’ve come to expect; no dogged determination to find a way to win the match until the final point was over. Rafa was miserably mortal. And everyone at Ashe, as well as the entire TV viewing audience, had to watch until the very end; even when a Djokovic title was all but a foregone conclusion.

I couldn’t bring myself to watch the trophy ceremony. There was nothing I wanted to see or hear after the final point. I wanted to move on from this unsatisfying but brilliantly played final.

Why was it unsatisfying. For anyone (okay…me) who has admired Rafa and the never-say-quit effort he has always shown on the court, it was a disheartening final. Rafa seemed to give up in the fourth set. Okay maybe he didn’t exactly give up. That is not in his nature. But he’d been beaten up so badly, both mentally and physically, that he simply lost his will to try. That is what was so unsatisfying and disheartening about the men’s final.

Novak played amazing tennis to win, and was more than deserving of this championship. He has had (and is still having) a season of epic proportions. Three major titles, ten titles total (so far), the number one ranking, the most money made in a single season… the superlatives could go on. Yet even now it still doesn’t feel like there was something good that came from that final for us Rafa fans.

Maybe Davis Cup will make things better. But only if Spain doesn’t end up facing Serbia in the finals. That would give Novak ANOTHER opportunity to beat Rafa. Maybe the ATP Masters Series 1000 tournaments in Shanghai and Paris will help Rafa end the year on a high note. But only if Novak isn’t there to spoil the party.

Maybe the year-end championships in London will help end the year on a good note for Rafa. But only if he doesn’t end up with Novak in his round-robin group. That would mean Rafa could potentially get knocked out before the semifinal round. Even if he’s in the other group, he could still have an opportunity to beat Rafa in yet another final. Maybe we’ll all just have to wait until Australia in January to move beyond this domination of Rafa by Novak.

Maybe next year, Rafa.

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