Matt Cronin’s men’s final pick
1-NOVAK DJOKOVIC VS. 2-RAFAEL NADAL
I keep wondering whether Nadal is trying to pull the wool over our eyes by insisting that he hasn’t had enough time over the past two months to find a solution to beating Djokovic, who has pounded his way past him in five finals this year. It’s odd to hear a guy who essentially owned the other in big matches to all but concede that on his rival’s great day he doesn’t have enough answers to repel him, but when you lose 2011 finals at Indian Wells, Miami (both on hard courts), Madrid, Rome (both on clay) and Wimbledon (on grass), there’s a lot of room to doubt your technical prowess.
It’s not common for that to happen to a 10-time Grand Slam champ, but it was pretty clear after Djokovic outlasted clay-court dominator Nadal in Madrid and Rome that the Spaniard has serious problems on his hands because no player had ever beaten him back-to-back in major finals on his beloved red dirt since he won his first Roland Garros title in 2005. And then there was Wimbledon, where Djokovic, who has struggled so mightily on the grass, negated the Spaniard’s speed on turf by handcuffing him again and again.
I’ve written this time and time again about Djokovic at this tournament, but it is worth repeating, especially in the context of this match: His ability to flatten out his forehand and consequently add more power to it, as well as having more faith in going down the line with that shot, is critical to his development, especially against Nadal, as he can open up to the Spaniard’s forehand before going to his weaker backhand side. He also owns a killer down-the-line backhand, which he hurts his foe with frequently, as Nadal has a lot of trouble getting depth on his backhand while on the run.
Djokovic is also serving bigger and with more accuracy and is on such a high that he’s willing to take huge risks at crucial moments, like he did when he crunched a once-in-a-lifetime forehand return winner against Roger Federer down match point in the semifinals. Over a long contest, just like anyone else, he’s capable of going into small mental funks, but he has not lost a five-set match this year, and at least in 2011, he has always found a way to recover.
Really, it’s only men who can hit flat and through the ball frequently who can topple an in-form Nadal, and Djokovic is one of those men. His inability to find solutions against the Serbian is because he is back-pedaling too frequently and losing control and because he has such little faith in the power of his backhand down the line that he almost always plays it cross court against the Serbian, who is more than willing to punch through it.
With all that said, it’s not impossible for Nadal to win this match if he comes in and is willing to take risks. He must try and serve huge while mixing up his locations, step inside the baseline and dictate with his forehand, make sure to keep his backhand deep (and he really hasn’t done so all tournament) and, if he gets the chance, charge the net and force the Serbian out of his comfort zone, do it. Djokovic has become far too comfortable against him, and he must make him feel his massive presence once again.
Nadal always gives it his all, and he’s going to try darn hard to get on top of Djokovic early and get the crowd involved. He can’t afford to start sluggish or else the Serbian is capable of steamrolling him. I would like to say that this will go a long five sets, but I really see it going a long four, where unlike last year, it will be Djokovic raising the big trophy and concluding a fantastic Grand Slam year with three major titles. Thanks for reading. It’s been a blast, as always.