Most kids learn to play tennis by hitting against a wall. Maybe it’s a garage door or a fence in an alleyway.
On Monday night, Rafael Nadal must have flashed back to his childhood, batting a tennis ball against a stone wall on the ancient Mediterranean island of Mallorca.
For the sixth time in a final this year, Nadal ran into an impenetrable stone wall. Novak Djokovic, the Serb who supplanted Nadal at No. 1 and, like the Spaniard last year, won three of four Grand Slam titles, refused to give ground.
Throughout an intensely physical, 4-hour, 10-minute final, Djokovic was unyielding. His all-but-invincible tennis smothered the court and his Spanish opponent.
Nadal served, and returns were smacked back at his feet. Nadal hit wide to the corners, and the ball came back deeper and harder. Djokovic’s maddening consistency and muscular efficiency kept the Spaniard, a 10-time major winner, at bay until the third set, when only Nadal’s astonishing will kept him in the match.
The Serb’s relentless game is air-tight, but his head is just as impregnable.
It’s often said that tennis is played as much between the ears as it is between the lines. And not coincidentally, that’s the space—Nadal’s head—that Djokovic has stubbornly occupied all year.
Tennis is forehands and backhands, serves and returns, but it’s the psychological makeup of the game, even more than the strict matchup of styles and strategies, that defines the minute differences among the game’s elites.
And that’s where Djokovic’s dominance has been most resolute. Through nine months, nothing has dented his ability to apply and withstand pressure.
The Mallorcan, no stranger to holding a psychological advantage over even the likes of Roger Federer, has admitted that "Djokovic is in his head.” After six unsuccessful tries to defeat Djokovic, Nadal must feel as helpless as a child trying to beat a wall.
Since reaching the final last year and falling to Nadal, the Serb has dramatically improved his game and conditioning. Once beset by breathing and stamina issues, he is in spectacular shape after adopting a gluten-free diet and spending free time in an oxygen-boosting pod. His serve is wholly reformed; he turns defense into offense as well as Federer; and he changes direction of the ball better than perhaps anyone who’s played the game.
Djokovic has zero weaknesses. He doesn’t miss. And he simply believes he can do no wrong.
The 2011 US Open was the first major in which Djokovic carried the pressure firmly on his shoulders. After winning the Australian Open and Wimbledon, as well as five Master’s series titles, and losing just twice all year, he was expected to win the US Open.
It’s a new type of pressure, living up to expectations and an entire field gunning for you. Federer and Nadal know that pressure well.
Now it’s Novak Djokovic’s turn. And he’s thriving in it.