If you watch tennis long enough, you come to realize that turning points, whether they be in matches, tournaments, or even careers, are not always easily or accurately identified. For example, nobody imagined that Bjorn Borg’s win over Jimmy Connors in the four-man “Pepsi Grand Slam” exhibition in the dead of winter in 1979 in Boca Raton, Fla. would be the game-changer in that rivalry.
But neither Borg, whose claims to that effect were generally dismissed as a pleasant fantasy in the months following that victory, nor the record lied. Before that meeting, Borg was often running scared of Connors; he trailed in the head-to-head, 5-8. But Connors would never beat Borg again in 10 matches after that exhibition loss.
Likewise, if you saw the way Novak Djokovic manhandled Rafael Nadal in 2011—he beat him six times, and added another win at the 2012 Australian Open for good measure—and examined their record, it would appear that Rafa reversed that tide in Monte Carlo. Or, if you want to focus in their rivalry in majors, in the 2012 French Open final.
That isn’t how it appears to Nadal, though, as a small group of us learned shortly after he finished his main media obligations after his recent win over Djokovic at the U.S. Open. I didn’t get much of a chance to use that material that Monday night almost three weeks ago, so I’ll return to it now.
This, by the way, was the same meeting at which Nadal said of Djokovic, in a moment of absolute—and absolutely conscious—candor: “Sometimes, I really don’t know how I am able to beat him.” That confession was so sincere that everyone in the room, including Nadal, began laughing.
Anyway, when Rafa was asked to explain when he felt he turned it around against Djokovic, against whom he’s 6-1 since that somewhat fateful, nearly six-hour Australian Open final, he painted a nuanced and complex picture that doesn’t fit easily into any tidy narrative.
“There was not a turning point,” Nadal said, turning over the question in his mind before he went on. “Before the final here in 2011, I was in the locker room and I was not convinced that I would have the chance to win. But the third set of that day, that was a very important moment for me. I was able to change the situation. I was able to fight more than in previous situations with him.”
You may remember that the best set of that 2011 U.S. Open final—by far—was the third one, won by Nadal in a tiebreaker (the final score: 6-2, 6-4, 6-7 (3), 6-1, to Djokovic). Nadal vividly remembers that set and the message it left him to ponder: “Run for every point, fight for every ball, play aggressive.”
That may sound less like a magic formula than a wake-up call, but keep two important things in mind. Nadal at that point was thoroughly bamboozled by Djokovic, who was, as they say, “in his head.” Finding the strength and courage to break out of that nearly hypnotic hold Djokovic had on him, after losing two fairly one-sided sets in a major final, could not have been easy.
The other thing, easily forgotten, is that against every other player, including the redoubtable Roger Federer, Nadal had always been able to rely on his defense to win, even when his wins were about much more than defense. Against Djokovic in 2011, Nadal was forced to confront the fact that without ramping up his offense—“aggression” is his word of choice—he might not be able to win through.
“Some of the points in that third set were amazing, very long. In the rallies, you cannot hear the ball even, because the crowd is crazy on a lot of the points. And that was very high quality tennis that Djokovic was playing.”
So high-quality, in fact, that despite the encouraging signs, Nadal wisely sensed that he might have to wait to avenge himself on Djokovic. “I had to wait a bit in that moment, I had to increase a little bit my level and wait for him to lose a little bit of his confidence, or something in his game.”
Nadal’s next opportunity presented itself in that epic 2012 Australian Open final. He went into that match having absorbed the lessons he learned in 2011, saying: “I felt I was very close. I finished that match very happy because all the time I was able to change the dynamic. I know after that I have a way to win.”
So first Nadal won a set. Then he hung in there, giving as good as he got, in their next meeting in a major final. All he had left to do was win and provide the final, positive proof of his theory. He did that in the 2012 Monte Carlo final. In a surprisingly one-sided match, Nadal won 6-3, 6-1, but it was qualified somewhat by a major distraction that plagued Djokovic, the death of a grandfather, Vladimir, with whom he had been very close.
As emotionally buffeted as Djokovic might have been, that match also was the ideal moment for Nadal to spring his final trap. He had Djokovic right where he wanted—on the road to Roland Garros, where even Nole, during his enchanted 2011, had been unable to keep Nadal from winning another French Open title.
Of course, you couldn’t call any of that a “plan.” That would have been way too rigid a way to look at it, and too subject to variables. But the way things worked out certainly amounted to testament and tribute to Nadal’s faith, confidence and—perhaps most of all, if least acknowledged—his patience.
And that, really, is one of the most significant lessons that can be taken from the saga of how Nadal has rebounded to re-establish his dominion over Djokovic. Nadal didn’t find some new, secret tactic or weapon. He didn’t embrace some magical training or fitness regimen. To turn around a rivalry against a player as gifted and dangerous as Djokovic, and to do it so comprehensively, mostly required an enormous amount of mental strength and combative joie d’vivre.
In our small-group meeting, Nadal put this persistence, this toughness, this fidelity to his mission down to the training provided by his uncle Toni Nadal during his formative years. “I always have that (mental toughness) because I work on that since I was a kid, every day. Is true my uncle made me play under a lot of pressure in every practice when I was a kid. I was able to play with the highest possible intensity, every practice. I am sure that what he did for me in those years enabled me to be how I am now.”
And how he is now just flat-out the best in the world—once again.