Hit Me Again: Djokovic vs. Nadal


Growing up in the 70’s and 80’s, the tennis served as an eminently companionable side show to my flannel-centric summers. I fondly remember Kooyong and White City grass courts. Newk, Muscles, Eddo, Phil Dent and, yes, even JA, were a welcome support cast filling in the gaps between test matches. The tennis was as much a part of my summers as sunburn and Paddle Pops (banana, not spearmint- that constitutes a fruit doesn’t it Mum?).

But I confess I’ve grown increasingly tennis-sceptic as the years passed.

As Kooyong gave way to Flinders Park, then the not-at-all-needy-sounding Melbourne Park, I’ve found many aspects of the tennis scene harder to stomach. The prima donna antics mixed with the sponsor-conscious blandness of many of the players. How everyone except Federer now seems to be a power baseliner. The Oi Oi Oi media chants sounding increasingly like the desperate optimism of an over 30’s dating service as our playing fortunes declined. The contrived exhibitionism of so many in the crowd, who seem perpetually in audition for the next reality TV show.

All of these things became a turn-off.

I’ll readily admit to some personal double standards here. Tennis isn’t the only sport suffering some or all of these afflictions. I know many will disagree with me. But what’s the point of middle-age if you can’t find some comfortable accommodation with your own contradictions?

Anyway, I almost didn’t watch the Men’s Final. I’m very glad I did.

Not that proceedings made a promising start. As a parade of past champions awkwardly escorted the Cup around the arena the Olympics began to suddenly seem less bombastic . However you might describe the ruling production aesthetic, understated wouldn’t get a guernsey. Overblown would. Given that in their day Laver, Rosewall and co were the epitome of modest, self-effacing Aussie sportsmanship, you wonder what they really think of all this palaver.

The modern fixation with ‘producing’ sporting events to condition our response – just in case we doubt for a second that the spectacle mightn’t be worth the price of admittance – continues to run rampant.

Mercifully the match got under way. For once, the product would live up to the packaging.

If part of what you value in sport is the idea of a genuine contest of wills, a mutual refusal to yield to your opponent no matter the odds, then this was going to be your match.

Mind you, it was a slow burn. Both Djokovic and Nadal are base line grinders, so it was never going to be quick. For added effect neither of them exactly hurry between points. The TV remote got a workout as my concentration drifted in the early stages. As usual, 57 channels and nothing (else) on.

At about the duration the average T20 game wraps up this match looked to be heading for an inevitable Djokovic victory. Little did we expect we were headed into Timeless Test territory.

I know boxing analogies are done to death in sports commentary, but this was one tennis match that actually warrants it. So excuse me while I indulge my inner Courier.

Rafael Nadal looks like a male model but plays tennis like Jake LaMotta, had the old Raging Bull wielded a racquet instead of participating in one. The more Djokovic hit him the more he seemed to like it. 3-4 and 0-40 on serve? Not good enough. Down 3-5 in the 4th set tiebreaker, is that all you’ve got punk? His escape from the 4th set was a minor miracle. One born of a sheer cussed refusal to yield.

This left Novak Djokovic with a problem. A big one. Having already thrown the proverbial kitchen sink he might well have feared he was that dope on the rope*. Flogging hamburger grills with George Foreman may have appealed as a career option just about then. He was precisely where he didn’t want to be: in a knock-down-drag-out with the meanest brawler in tennis. If he was looking wobbly I knew how he felt. I’d worked up a bead just watching from the couch.

We all now know what then transpired.

Looked at from a distance, sport can seem a curious beast. Top level sport is way more than exercise. Why do people put themselves through it? In this instance, neither combatant needs the money. What deeper motivations drive champions? Outside of a sporting context, some of these motives may look less attractive.

But on Sunday night (and Monday morning) they looked magnificent. No need to contrive emotion here, it was spilling out everywhere. Djokovic’s shirt-tearing antics were born of one last berserk adrenal surge. Minutes later, as the rush wore off, he was slumped over a court side chair. Nadal had a scarily hollowed-out look about him. Both needed chairs to make it through the speeches.

Whatever ‘real’ is, this was it.

Those who seek to dress sport up as mere entertainment do it a major disservice. To know why, just revisit this match.

I won’t be the only one making sure I’m tuned in the next time these two gentlemen meet.


* As you can tell, the Channel Seven commentary has had an effect. I’m seeking professional assistance.

About John Butler

John Butler has fled the World's Most Liveable Car Park and now breathes the rarefied air of the Ballarat Plateau. For his sins, he has passed his 40th year as a Carlton member.


  1. John Butler says

    Just read Jake Niall’s Age piece.

    Did he watch the same match?

    Or have I lost the plot?

  2. JB

    I’m with Jake Niall on this.

    Don’t get me wrong, the final was a great match, but it was the one brand of tennis (granted a very good brand).

    However, I actually preferred the Nadal v. Federer semi due to the contrasting styles – in tennis, personality, wardrobe and temperament.

  3. John Butler says

    I take your point on aesthetics Litza. This was never going to be a pretty match.

    And they both play too slowly (although the physicality of the play is some excuse).

    But what a contest!

  4. It was a wonderful contest, but I thought Nadal v Verdasco semi final from a few years back beats them all. It had everything. Verdasco has never been the same since.

  5. John Butler says

    Dips, I find it impossible to compare tennis matches from different eras, so I can’t disagree on that point. I haven’t followed tennis closely enough of late to make meaningful comment on that. Besides, comparisons across eras in any sport are highly subjective at best.

    But I found the last couple of sets absolutely gripping. The intensity of the hitting and the physicality of the court movement were incredible. And I used to think of tennis as a gentlemanly game.

  6. Agree JB.

    For me, tennis in the 70s and 80s was at it’s best. Why? Because the tennis itself was great to watch, and the many personalities made it even more enjoyable.

    Nowadays, I find the tennis is about the players rather than the tennis. I’m only interested if the watching the “celebrities” if they are playing against other “celebrities”. Mostly, it’s run of the mill tennis but sometimes you get cracker matches like the one on Sunday night. I loved it.

    Edberg, Sampras and rafter all tried to carry the flame in the 90s, and Agassi made tennis worth watching because of his personality but it’s yet another passion/hobby/game that has been genericised by commercialism.

    I must admit, when Lendl first hit the scene, I was in awe because he was so different to everyone else. He played raw, unrelenting power tennis and pretty much only McEnroe had his measure until the 1984 French Open final which, IMO at least, an all-time classic.

    Little did I know that Lendl was ushering in a change so profound that I lost my interest in tennis.

  7. John Butler says

    That’s an interesting point Pete. Probably no player is as influential in the last 30 years as Lendl.

    The way I’d see it, only Federer can really play like Federer. Few can serve like Sampras. But as long as you’re prepared to work hard enough, you can approximate Lendl’s game (given a certain level of innate ability). He certainly has a lot of clones now.

    I wonder what role coaching has played in all of this?

  8. Coaching big time, and I’m making a big, unfounded observation here, but I think culture and environment. To me, it’s no surprise that most of the leading tennis players (men and women) come from countries where there is economic, political and/or social turmoil. They have very strong reasons to succeed.

    I think the demise of grass as a surface also changed the dynamics.

  9. Sorry JB, the tennis died for me with the grass at Kooyong.
    (with apologies to anyone who has written a meaningful ballad)

    Braving the blazing sun
    We sat and watched as first Frank Sedgeman
    Then Lew Hoad and young Rosewall too
    Took on the Yankee Horde.
    With catgut strings and wooden frames,
    They served and volleyed every point
    Every set to advantage went.
    The only sound was ball on racquet
    The only pay was honour served.
    Now it’s all about what’s in the packet

  10. John Butler says

    Howdy Wrap. Happy New Year!

    As a Tiger fan I suppose nostalgia is essential to survival. :)

    Those days you describe seem very understated. Everything is sell, sell, sell now.

  11. Mark Doyle says

    This year’s Australian Open Tennis men’s final was a great match between two great champiions who both play with excellent sportsmanship. Comparison with other great matches from previous years is pointless as are comparisons with different eras. It is always bemusing when people make ratings of sports and sportspeople which only demonstrate a bias and misunderstanding of the history of sport.
    The only irritating thing about the open is the Australian media coverage which is mostly trivial and celebrity nonsense. Most of what people such as Jake Niall write is self indulgent and pretentious rubbish.
    The Australian Tennis Open is the best annual sports event in Australia because we see the best men and women players in the world. It is also interesting how the event has become a very popular social event – most of the 45,000 people who attend each day are not particularly interested in tennis; they spend most of their time socialising with friends in the Heineken beer garden, collecting their Garnier showbag and shopping for the latest sports clothing.

  12. Mark – not sure why a comparison or rating of sports and sportspeople demonstrates a bias and misunderstanding of sport. Isn’t it one of the great conversations at a pub or with your mates, to banter and debate and discuss who was better? Joe Louis v Ali, Ablett v Carey, Judd v Ian Stewart. Great fodder for discussion here.

    And aren’t we allowed to be a bit biased? I reckon Ablett senior is the best player in history by quite some way, but I probably reckon that because I support Geelong.

    And isn’t a political opinion just a bias? You give plenty of those on this website (recently arguing that Fran Bailey is an apologist for the Libs – shock, horror!).Given your background as a red (or pink) leftie (something you have previously outlined) should we disregard all your views as being biased and displaying a misunderstanding of histoy?

    Or is fun banned in the world of M Doyle?

  13. Mark Doyle says

    Dips, we can agree to disagree about sporting comparisons. I believe most of these comparisons are subjective and meaningless. Why can’t we just enjoy good sporting performances and occasionally be a bit objective? Pub sports talk is mostly banter and I have often partaken in such banter at the golf club and pub.

    I am also a Geelong supporter and am interested that you think Ablett senior is the best player in history. Is that Geelong Footy Club history or VFL/AFL history? I think that this is a big statement, as the coodabeens might say. Ablett senior may have been one of the most spectacular players, but I am not sure that he is either the best Geelong player or the best VFL/AFL player. I think Polly Farmer is the best Cat, and as an almost 50 year supporter, I have been happy to see some great players, such as Farmer, Ablett senior and junior, Billy Goggin, Doug Wade, Peter Walker, Denis Marshall, John Sharrock, John Newman, David Clarke senior, Ian Nankervis, Mark Bos, Paul Couch, Mark Bairstow, Steve and Garry Hocking, Steve King, Matthew Scarlett, Joel Corey, Cameron Ling, Paul Chapman, Corey Enright, Jim Bartel, Steve Johnson, Jim Kelly and Joel Selwood.

    As for the best VFL/AFL player, based on individual and team achievements and longevity, it is hard to go past the great Essendon player Dick Reynolds. Some of the non-Geelong players that I have enjoyed watching over the years have been Ian Stewart, Darrell Baldock, Alex Jesaulenko, Bruce Doull, Royce Hart, Len Thompson, Brent Crosswell, Barry Cable, Keith Greig, Peter Knights, Peter Hudson, Leigh Matthews, Peter Daicos, John Platten, Wayne Carey, Tony Lockett, Robert Harvey, Andrew MacLeod, Mark Ricciuto, James Hird, Glen Jakovich, Dean Kemp, Guy MacKenna, Peter Matera, Michael Voss, Simon Black, Alistair Lynch, Nigel Lappin, Chris Grant, Matthew Pavlich, Adam Goodes and Chris Judd.

    I think I said Fran Kelly of ABC radio national is an apologist for the Libs. Fran Bailey was a former liberal member of the House of Reps.

    Fun is not banned in my world, but unfortunately we do not have much of it in todays world. The Australian media has not produced any decent sports comedy in recent times. The last of any decent sports comedy was Roy and HG’s ‘This Sporting Life’ on JJJ and the John Clarke, Bryan Dawe and Gina Riley TV show ‘The Games’. The Coodabeens have been pretty ordinary for the last 20 odd years and their best sports comedy was on RRR in the early to mid 80’s along with the ‘Punter to Punter’ show on RRR.

  14. Mark – welcome to the world of meaningless footy banter. You’re pretty good at it. Its fun don’t you reckon?

    By the way I reckon Gary Ablett was the best player of all time in any comp. To me there is Ablett then daylight. Just like there is Bradman in cricket.

    I love how you hang onto the Fran Bailey thing. Does this mean that Maxine McKew was just an apologist for the ALP? Probably.

  15. Hi John,

    I missed Jake Niall’s piece but I’d say he’s lost the plot if his reflection conflicts with yours.

    The clay season’s going to be interesting for once. Can’t wait for the French or even the Monte Carlo and Rome.

    I’ve got a feeling Murray’s going to have a pretty good year with Lendl by his side. Murray’s game was much more aggressive during the aussie open but as you’ve suggested it’s going to be hard for Lendl to get control of Murray’s mindset.

  16. John Butler says

    Joey, they certainly make for an intriguing combination.


  17. Pamela Sherpa says

    I understood Jake Niall’s view. There was no surprise, tennis wise, in the match. It was a baseline slugfest ,more an endurance epic rather than a brilliant tennis match I thoroughly enjoyed watching it because it was such a test of stamina .The standard from both players, superb athletes, when they were dead on their feet was amazing.

  18. I dislike baseline tennis, and am always willing one of the players to the net. It is such a waste having a 200+ km/h serve to not attack the net and I think a lot of opportunities are lost.

    Having said that, the Nadal/Djokovich baseline epic was not your normal baseline battle, probably because neither of them are your average baseliner.

    The sheer audacity of many of the strokes by both players was extraordinary. Winners against other players were not winners in this match; to hit winners required shot making and power that was extraordinary. And they had to do it for 6 hours.

  19. And it’s pretty easy to prove that Gary Ablett Senior was the best, if not second best player ever.

    All those players named by Mark were greta players but what did they do that other players have not?

    They all got lots and kicks and handballs, but so have thousands of other footballers.

    They were courageous and tough, but so have thousands of other footballers.

    Some of them were fast, some took high marks, some could read the play really well, but so have many other footballers.

    Some have won Brownlows, but there is one of those awarded every year.

    Yes, the best players possess many of the aptitudes required and perform more consistently and at a higer level than the rest which is why they are great.

    But anyone playing footy knows that the hardest thing to do is kick goals. We all dream of being the star full forward, of centre half forward, or goal kicking midfielder, but the reality is that most people do not have that ability. Great goal kickers are like hen’s teeth, as most AFL teams can attest to.

    Only 5 men have kicked over 1,000 goals in their career. Only 5! It is an extremely rare occurrence!

    AND ONLY ONE of those was NOT a career full forward. And on top of that, he was an outstanding high mark AND contested mark. Very few players are outstanding at both. He had incredible speed, could bounce the ball at pace, kick 70 metres, kick goals on both his left and right side, and was as tough and corageous as they came.

    Watch the 1989 Preliminary Final and give me the name of one other player could have matched Gazza that day in all aspects of the game – speed, power, marking, kicking, goal kicking.

    When Gazza moved to full forward, he was over 30 and kicked over 100 goals 3 seasons in a row! And he was only 185cm playing againstblokes 3 and 4 inches taller.

    It’s amazing that people use the argument that he was inconsistent. Hello! 1,030 goals in 248 games! Named in Geelong’s best players in over 60% of the games he played. I think he even has the the highest goal kicking average on the MCG, and it’s not even his home ground.

    Of course, my opinion is just more meaningless footy banter.

  20. Anthony James says

    A month and a half on, a different season fills the air, but this match still lingers in my mind. Yep, John, I saw it like you did. And will never forget the players’ faces in the agonising minutes during the speeches before someone finally got them chairs to sit on!

  21. John Butler says

    Anthony, I remember their faces too. About as much pain as you can inflict on yourself in a non-contact sport.

    They looked like runners at the end of a marathon.


Leave a Comment