There is a story behind the US Open final that needs to be told. It's not the story about how Rafa might turn out to be the GOAT after all or how Djokovic's parents are really annoying or how I can't believe we were denied Fedal again, even though they are all valid and worthy stories.
This story is a story about fitness.
Cast your mind back, if you can, to January 2009, when the slightly younger Rafael Nadal played Fernando Verdasco in an Australian Open semi for the ages. It went for over five hours and was physically exhausting, brutal tennis for both parties. No one left anything on court.
That same Rafa Nadal came back two days later, played another five sets, and beat the greatest plater of all time.
Now let us consider the case of Novak Djokovic. Mr One-Slam-Away-From-A-Retirement-Slam played an absolute epic of a five setter semi final against the greatest player of all time. No one left anything on court. It was wall to wall blood and sweat and tears.
This same Novak Djokovic looked meek as a little kitten for a good part of the opening set of the US Open final. He was slapping his feet with his racquet and looking for cheap points as quick as you could say boo.
Now, yes, this is slightly unfair. It's very unfair, in fact. But I would contend that the two circumstances are comparable, and one of the things that separates the greats from the extraordinarily goods is fitness. Let's say Federer had been the one to come out of that semi. Even if he had lost in this final, I don't think I would be writing the same essay now. His fitness is rarely talked about, but it's incredible.
But this is not about what might have been. What I do mean to say is that I think the right player won this match, and not just because the other guy was tired. If Rafa Nadal had been the one to go through that five set semi, I don't think his performance would have been any different than it was. Because he is made of iron.
I don't know if any of this is necessarily Djokovic's fault. I certainly don't wish to diminish his achievements - he took a set off Rafa, for heaven's sake, and we all know how hard this is to do. But this is one of the things that is standing between him and Slam #2. He expends so much energy getting to the final that once he's there... he can't quite play the tennis we know and he knows that he is capable of.
2 months ago