Rafa Versus Novak: My Take on the 2011 US Open Men’s Final

After a series of failed “predictions” for this US Open, namely picking Roger to win in the first men’s semifinal and picking to Serena to beat Sam Stosur for her 14th major, I am going to limit my US Open men’s final preview to merely a discussion of how the final could play out between the two finalists. After all, it doesn’t matter what the predictions are if the combatants change the rules on us. With that in mind, here’s a discussion of what has worked and not worked for Rafa and Novak in their previous matches this season.

What must Rafa do to win this match?

Rafa has lost 5 finals to Novak this season, including the last loss in the Wimbledon final. Rafa has readily admitted that after so many losses this season, Novak kind of got in his head a bit. It’s not only the fact that Novak got in his head, it’s that Rafa couldn’t find a way to get him out. And in the confusion created by not being able to get past the “Djokovic Dilemma”, Rafa’s lack of a plan B became sorely exposed.

His favored (and continual) strategy of trying to get Novak’s backhand to break down over the course of a rally stopped working way back in Miami, yet he’s continued to think it will happen at some point. Again and again, especially in the clay court tournaments, Rafa kept playing the high topspin shots to Novak’s backhand hoping for something to happen to his benefit.

It never did, though he did discover that Novak could impressively change direction and burn him by going down the line. Novak is driving the ball incredibly well from his backhand wing, no matter how high Rafa tries to get the ball on him. Where Federer’s single-handed backhand is ineffectual because of the high topspin, Novak could care less.

And that’s just Rafa’s issues with his forehand to Novak’s backhand. When you look at Novak’s forehand to Rafa’s backhand, he’s at yet another disadvantage. Novak is creating incredible pace off the forehand side these days. If he stretches Rafa wide to his backhand side by attacking with his forehand, Rafa is at a disadvantage because he can’t hurt Novak with his crosscourt backhand. He can defend with it, but not hurt him. If the shot lands even a little bit short, it’s lights out!

Rafa’s serve and return of serve can also cause him problems in this match-up. Whereas last year in New York, Rafa’s serve was a weapon that Novak couldn’t read well, he’s all over Rafa’s serve this season. It doesn’t hurt him at all. Plus, he’s become one of the best returners in the game. So if Rafa doesn’t place his serve well with good mph’s, Novak will make him pay. Much like the way he made Federer pay on that first match point he smacked for a crosscourt winner before going on to break Fed en route to the win.

Novak’s serve has always been a tough one for the top guys to read. It’s even more of a weapon now that his motion is more consistent and he’s not so prone to double faults. It sets him up well for his strong ground game. Weak returns are promptly put away for winners. Rafa has yet to keep up consistent pressure on Novak’s service games. His returns don’t attack enough, and he never finds himself in a position to get the necessary break against Novak .

The return games are ineffectual, probably because he’s too busy struggling to hold his own serve in his matches against Novak. The opening salvo in the Wimbledon final was Rafa looking nervously at Novak as he prepared to serve to the ad court, advantage Novak. The moment and the nerves got to Rafa and he double-faulted. That moment said everything about Rafa’s worries when he serves to Novak. A missed first serve and weak second serve (or even simply a weak first serve) and he will be immediately on the defensive. Cue the double fault…

So is there an upside for Rafa, a way that he can find his way out of this mess and beat Novak? Yes.

Part of Rafa’s problems with Novak have been his almost Federer-like insistence of sticking to previous tactics that had worked previously, but now no longer work as effectively if at all. This stubbornness may have been excusable for the first couple of losses at Indian Wells and Miami. But by the time he lost in Madrid, it was maddening to see Rafa not switch things up and try something new. Interviews have since revealed that he was struggling finding a solution to the Novak problem, which makes his lack of change more understandable. You stick with what works when you don’t have any other solution to try.

He does have a solution though. He must step in and not give up his court position to Novak. For most of this tournament Rafa has played from a very defensive court position, only stepping in and dictating as needed OR as when he felt comfortable enough to do so in his matches. He must not back up in this final. Novak has the shots and confidence to exploit any perceived offensive weakness he sees. Rafa must stand on that baseline and dictate with his forehand to Novak’s backhand, going for the down the line forehand when presented with an attackable ball.

Another tactic that could work well is one that Rafa has employed at Wimbledon. If he can find his way to the net to finish off points quickly while not allowing Novak a chance to find his groove in his ground game, he could unsettle Novak in much the same way Roger did during the first two sets of their semifinal. As soon as Roger got a bit tired and stopped coming in, the match became infinitely harder. To pursue this tactic, however, serving will be key for Rafa.

Rafa must get a high percentage of first serves in. If he has struggles with his serving as he did in some of his other matches (like his quarterfinal against Andy Roddick), Novak will make him pay dearly by attacking his second serve relentlessly. Even if Rafa is getting in a lot of first serves, Novak might still attack relentlessly. At least he’ll be in a better position to not get hurt as badly by Novak’s returns.

However, the most important element of a Rafa win in the final will be having a “belief that he can win”. Rafa must have good thoughts, and stay positive from the first point in the match. Intense and positive. Anything less will not be enough to beat someone who so clearly believes he can win any match against any opponent. In his book Rafa, he explains it perfectly:

Tennis is, more than most sports, a sport of the mind; it is the player who has those good sensations on the most days, who manages to isolate himself best from his fears and from the ups and downs in morale a match inevitably brings, who ends up being world number one.

You could look in Rafa’s eyes during the other finals and not see the belief. He must have this… it is crucial!

What must Novak do to win this match?

What’s the best way to put this; he just needs to do “more of the same”. Everything is working for him right now. His forehand is formidable, his backhand is formidable, his serve is working extremely well, his movement on the court is great, his defense is impeccable, and his defense to offense is in a class by itself…even more so than Rafa at this point.

His confidence is off the charts right now. THAT is his greatest weapon! Before he set up to receive Roger’s serve on the first match point in their semifinal, he had a calm look on his face. Maybe even a hint of a sly smile. And then the shot heard round the world: a ridiculously laser-like crosscourt forehand that whizzed by Federer as he was recovering from his service motion, followed by an almost “strut” to the ad side of the court to receive serve for the second match point.

Federer dismissed the shot as luck. It’s easier for him to look at it from that point of view rather than admit that Novak’s shot unnerved him, and brought back memories from last year’s semifinal when he hit a similarly outrageous shot. It was in many ways a cheap shot, of sorts, from Roger. He was so demoralized by the loss that he couldn’t even give credit to Novak for the audacity to believe he could hit such a shot on a match point. But Novak does have that audacity these days. And Rafa knows it will be in full display after 5 previous losses this season.

If Rafa wins, it will be in 4-5 sets of tough, grueling tennis. Novak’s semifinal was much harder than Rafa’s, so there is a slim chance that if the match goes deep Rafa might just have the edge. But we’re talking a razor thin edge at best. Still, it’s better than nothing.

If Novak wins, it will be in 3-4 sets. The tennis will still be tough, but once Novak imposes his game on Rafa, the doubt will creep into Rafa’s head and the match will turn decidedly in much the same way as their Wimbledon final. It was hard to watch Rafa capitulate in that manner, but we should prepare ourselves to witness a potential repeat of that in this final as well.

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