WIMBLEDON, England — Five thoughts off Novak Djokovic’s 6-4, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3 victory over Rafael Nadal in the Wimbledon men’s final:
• Novak Djokovic is the new king. When Djokovic achieved the No. 1 ranking on Friday, it was met with quiet admiration. It took him 48 hours to legitimize his supremacy — and the reaction has been emphatic. With a breathtaking display of offense, defense and mental strength, Djokovic took down defending champ Rafael Nadal on Centre Court today, 6-4, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3. Djokovic has lost one match since Thanksgiving weekend. He has won two of the last three majors. He beaten Nadal five straight times, twice on clay, twice on hard courts, once on grass. Two years ago, we coronated Federer here. A year ago it was Nadal. Suddenly Djokovic looks darn near unbeatable and is halfway from turning in a season that will rival any year Federer or Nadal put up. What a player. What an era.
• Questions for Rafa. Coming into today, Nadal’s record in major finals was 10-2 — with the two losses coming early in his career to Federer, then an unrivalled grass player. The guy is nothing if not a big match player. Which makes today’s result particularly striking. A repeat of their earlier matches this year, Nadal was bullied by Djokovic. He was confounded by the relentless retrieving, neutralized by depth and lost the majority of the forehand-to-backhand rallies. Against Federer you sense Nadal’s attitude is: you may be an artist but I can grind you down. Against Djokovic, Nadal lacks that self-belief. He now faces perhaps the biggest challenge of his career, figuring out how to handle this ambitious opponent.
• Depth perception. Speed kills. And, we’re told, defense wins championships. There’s no catchy maxim for “depth” but it’s essential too. This, the new alpha rivalry of the men’s game is largely mental (see below). But Djokovic won this match mostly because he pinned Nadal well behind the baseline with deep balls and didn’t let him penetrate the court. It’s the shotmaking and creative angles that are fodder for the highlight shows. But Djokovic won so many points simply drilling balls that landed within a few inches of the baseline — sometimes to the middle of the court — forcing Nadal into defensive positions.
• Mind over matter. Tennis, especially as it’s played today, is a brutal sport physically. Djokovic and Nadal, both sensational athletes, offered countless examples of speed, strength, dexterity, coordination and reflexes. But tennis is, at its core, a mental game. And for whatever reason, Djokovic has now clearly taken up residence in Nadal’s head. It’s not simply that’s he beaten him five straight times this year. It’s the cadence of the matches, the frustrating defense, sudden indefatigability. Nadal had no answers and made mistakes today that he makes against no other players. Nadal getting broken deep in a set? Shanking overheads? Double-faulting at inopportune moments? Getting his teeth back into the match in the fourth and then failing to hold serve? After a few games, Nadal wore a mask that said: “What do I have to do to beat this friggin’ guy?” He never figured it out.
• Bring on the summer. The great appeal of having a three-way rivalry at the top of the men’s game: no matter how the story breaks, it’s significant. Can Djokovic continue his dominant form at the U.S. Open, winning his third major of 2011? Can he continue and turn in what could end up the finest season in men’s tennis history? Can Nadal come up with some answer to the very difficult questions being asked of him? Can he win back some mometum in the rivalry? Can Federer make a stand? Right now every Slam brings a new twist in the narrative. Sit back — or lean forward — and enjoy.