As the French Open final between Djokovic and Nadal unfolded, it was difficult to get a measure of what was going on. Nadal started by breaking twice, and yet after six games the set was tied 3-3. As Pete Bodo put it in his review of the match, “Nadal began making inexplicable errors, almost as if it was a sympathetic reaction of some kind”. Gradually it became apparent that both players were extremely nervous. The match ebbed and flowed, more in Nadal’s direction, but at times very definitely in Djokovic’s.
After the match, Nadal looked extremely relieved. Before the clay court season started it had seemed reasonable to suggest that no matter what happened during the Masters series tournaments, Nadal was going to retain his Roland Garros crown, even if it killed him. As it turned out, Nadal got the upper hand from the start of the clay court season, beating a distracted Djokovic easily in the Monte Carlo final, 6-3 6-1. The scoreline in the Rome final wasn’t so one sided, but Nadal again beat Djokovic in straight sets, 7-5 6-3. Nadal had been mentally prepared for a struggle equal to the 2011 clay court season, when Djokovic followed his pair of victories over Nadal at Indian Well and Miami with straigh sets wins in the finals of Madrid and Rome, and in response to 2011, and he had made alterations to his game So while the long battle through the clay court season to reclaim his territory had been a total success, one could see that it had cost him; in the French Open final he had had to dig very deep.
We will probably not know for quite a while exactly what the balance of physical and mental exhaustion was that saw Nadal stretched into a fifth set against Rosol in the 2nd round at Wimbledon. What Rosol then produced in the fifth set was almost beyond belief, but nonetheless Nadal looked a beaten man. Mentally or physically? Probably it was a mixture of both: clearly a post-French Open hangover was in place.
In his press conference after the French Open final, Djokovic was oddly sprightly, as if he was appreciative of the lesson that he had learnt at Nadal’s hands during the match. He pointed out that it was his first Roland Garros final, and that combining that with beating Nadal was a bridge too far. He seemed to be already enthusiastic for the 2013 tournament, as if he was raring to put what he had learnt in that match into practice.
Since then it has been harder to get a measure of how Djokovic has been. Before Wimbledon he played no warm-up tournament, and then progressed without much trouble: he had straight sets victories over Ferrero, Harrison, Troicki and Mayer; before the semifinal he lost just the one set, to Stepanek, and was never taken to a tiebreak. But in the semifinal he lost to Federer. Despite his winning the second set, it did not feel like the momentum was ever truly with him, and he left the tournament surprisingly quietly. A similar pattern was followed at the Olympics: he looked strong beating Tsonga in the quarterfinals, but was then efficiently beaten by Murray, 7-5 7-5. Maybe Djokovic has been having a post-French Open hangover too?
Unlike the rest of the top eight, Djokovic both turned up at the Toronto Masters and applied himself, dropping just one set as he beat Tomic, Querrey, Haas, Tipsarevic and Gasquet. Since he didn’t face any of Federer, Nadal or Murray, it was just as difficult to assess how he was at this tournament as it had been at the Olympics and Wimbledon. The following week in Cincinnati he once again marched through the draw – and then lost the final 6-0 7-6 to Federer. For a player to win a Masters tournament one week and then lose the final of another the following is scarcely unheard of; in any case he had had the Olympics immediately before that, and so a degree of tiredness was inevitable. So, yet again, we found it hard to know just how Djokovic was.
Djokovic’s run through the draw at the US Open was nicely paced: easy victories in the early rounds left him fresh for the quarterfinals as he took revenge on Del Potro for of his loss in the Olympics’ bronze medal match. In the windswept first set of his semifinal against Ferrer he looked very unhappy but when they returned the next day, he once again looked dominant.
In the US Open final we finally saw from Djokovic something of the fight that he had shown during the French Open final: whereas in the Olympics semifinal Murray had had little trouble taking the two sets off Djokovic, in this final he was stretched all the way, and, as Lendl pointed out, had to fight his way back into the match in the second half of the fourth set.
Recently Djokovic has spoken of his desire to get his number one ranking back from Federer. Given that Federer has a lot of points to defend over the remainder of the year, this seems like a realistic ambition, and maybe we saw in the US Open final Djokovic regaining the final degree of his concentration. But maybe, really, he is still dreaming of the 2013 French Open final and of completing his career slam by winning the hardest battle of all: beating Nadal at Roland Garros.