When Novak had a last laugh against Nadal – Duel of lifetime-One hour and fifteen minutes of pure bliss -By Prashant Vaidya

Most of the people who know me, know that I am a big sports fan and a cricket fanatic. It was a Saturday morning in March, and India – Pakistan T20 game was on – part of the T20 World Cup being played in India! It could have been a perfect Saturday morning – nice, crisp, cool spring morning! Just lie leisurely on a cozy sofa and watch the game on TV; sipping morning tea and munching on Khari and Parle G biscuits! What else do you want in life! Right?

Instead, we got up at 6 AM – जरा कडमडतच, had a quick tea (made of Tea Bag!), grabbed a couple of breakfast bars and left the house at 7 AM. Picked up a couple of friends on the way and drove all the way to Indian Wells, a desert town East of Los Angeles – about 150 miles away! A suburb of Palm Springs, a winter playground of the rich & famous – made famous by the likes of Frank Sinatras, Bob Hopes and Chers! A place, where there is probably a 1:1 ratio between houses and golf courses (I am exaggerating – but you get the point)! Plus lots of big hotels and resorts, wide roads lined with palm trees, and houses with exquisitely manicured gardens.

We were here to watch a Tennis tournament (BNP Paribas)! That day they were having two Men’s semi finals as well as Women’s and Men’s doubles finals!

We first went to this tournament 2 – 3 years ago, to see my Tennis god, Roger Federer! And it became a pilgrimage since that year. Last couple of years, apart from Federer, we were lucky to see some great players like Djokovic, Andy Murray, the Brian Brothers (one of the greatest doubles pairs), John Isner, Milos Raonic, and even our own Sania Mirza who had won the Women’s doubles with Martina Hingis in 2015. In 2015 Semi Final Andy Murry was decimated by Djokovic – I have never seen any Tennis player as lethargic as Andy Murray – I just don’t know how he even won the Wimbledon!

Interestingly, almost all the best tennis players participate in this tournament as there is not much tennis being played elsewhere and weather is just perfect. Plus, they can bring their family and friends with them – for example, Federer brings his wife and all his twins! Apparently, they claim that after the 4 Grand Slam tennis tournaments this tournament is the largest in terms of money and attendance…

The stadium nestled in the beautiful desert mountains is immaculate with great facilities… Oracle Billionaire Larry Ellison has poured Millions of dollars into this tournament, and he is there in the audience for semifinals and finals with probably a new babe besides him every year… The beer costs $9 for a Budweiser (one of the worst beers, if you ask me), a hot dog $8 and hamburger costs over $15! The merchandise shops and have the same feel of expensive Rodeo Drive or NY 5th Avenue shops – but for Tennis apparel… And invariably you see the old ladies and men, members of the club, walking with their Tennis gear wearing designer headbands and wristbands! No wonder it’s a playground of rich and famous!

Another friend, his daughter, and mother-in-law joined from San Diego. The tickets were all sold out. We had an extra ticket as a Doctor friend was not able to join. But selling the ticket was a piece of cake! Before the first match had even started, we learned that India had won the game against Pakistan! Yes, we were checking the score on ESPN Cricinfo on the way…

First match was between the fast-serving, tall and lanky Canadian Milos Raonic and Belgian David Goffin, a decent baseline player (in the same mold of Andre Agassi, minus the swagger). Good match, which

went into 3 sets (they play best of 3 sets in this tournament) with Raonic winning comfortably at the end.

And then it was time for the main event of the day! The 16,000 people stadium started filling in… Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic walked in with their gear for a warm up – among a roaring applause from the spectators! I had not seen Nadal during last 2 – 3 years, either he didn’t play or lost in the early rounds. Now you know, why I had skipped the India – Pakistan cricket match!

Nadal was just trying to make a comeback after a long hiatus due to a major injury and wanted to prove that he still belonged at the top! He literally came out swinging – wielding his racket I mean… Within first 10 – 15 minutes, even before people could settle in their seats, he held his serve in the first game and broke Djokivic’s serve in the second game and went 2 – 0, with both games winning at zero! Winning all the points in 2 games. Djokovic just was clueless and didn’t know what was happening! Unforced errors, double faults… The entire stadium started chanting “RafaRafa…” They all wanted Nadal to win, it seemed!

In the third game with Nadal serving, Djokovic finally managed to win a point. But Nadal kept his serve to go up 3 – 0! In the fourth game Djokovic again fail behind 15 – 40! Two service breaks, and first set would have been virtually over. And what happened after that was just out of this world – from a pure magic book!

Suddenly Djokovic woke up from his afternoon nap, his feet started moving, serves started falling in and shots started getting crisper! Somehow, he managed to stretch the game to a deuce (40 – 40). And you could hear some faint chants of “Novak Novak” from his Serbian fans in the audience. They were also beginning to find their voice! After a few deuces back and forth, managed to Djokovic win his service game! Three – One Nadal!

Djokovic still had a big mountain to climb, but he slowly started crawling up , an inch at a time. On the other court Nadal was still in his zone. In the next game – Djokovic tried to wrestle the game from Nadal, but Nadal still managed to hold the serve. 4 – 1 Nadal!

During last 10 – 15 years Roger Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have literally dominated the Men’s tennis, with a few exceptions of some also-rans. In my humble opinion, Federer is the most natural and effortless – like our own Sachin Tendulkar! A legend! Nadal being a lefty has that natural artistic flare and finesse, but with a great power. Djokovic on the other hand, is probably the most athletic and tenacious! You just can’t wear him down! He will just run and run and run, and slide too! Off the court, they all are exceptional too! Federer and Nadal are true gentlemen! And Djokovic is just hilarious! His impersonations of several tennis players and they styles, from McEnroe, Nadal and even Maria Sharapova, are just outright funny! More than anything, they all have respect for each other…

The match had gotten rather interesting by now. Nadal was still playing at his best, but now Djokovic was fighting tooth and nail for every point! The number of rallies in each point were increasing exponentially. Services had more zing and the returns even sharper! I have no idea how Djokovic could return the powerful and angling first serve of lefty Nadal. Sometimes, he had to run several feet to the left or right of the sidelines to return! And then run back again to the middle of the court to play the next shot…

Both had raised the level of their game to its maximum! 120+ MPH serve, a thunderous backhand return, a scintillating spinning forehand, a backhand cross court, forehand cross court, down the line, shots barely kissing the baselines or sidelines, drop near the net – run Novak run – manage to get the ball just across the net, now a lefty top spin lob over the head, run back to the baseline, a high looping return, a, overhead smash across the court, run, run, run, grunt, even bigger grunt! They were unleashing every weapon from their armory! They were matching every shot with their own and even grunt to grunt. Fireworks from both sides of the court! Thrilling and exhilarating!

Almost every rally was 20 – 25 shots or even higher sometimes. And at the end of each rally the entire 16,000+ audience, who would be barely sitting at the edge of their seats and holding their breath during the entire rally, would jump from their seats and erupt in huge applause! Didn’t really matter who won that point! The stadium would be filled with Rafa – Rafa or Novak – Novak chants depending on who won that point. And there would consolation shout outs too – like “let’s go Rafa” or “keep it up Novak”! The main umpire probably was tired of saying the word “Deuce” – Deuce, advantage Nadal, deuce, advantage Djokovic, deuce… Back and forth, back and forth…

The outside temperature had risen to about 85 degrees Fahrenheit (30 Centigrade), but I can bet on the court the players were feeling like it was 120 degrees Fahrenheit! The tension so thick, that you could easily cut it with a small knife! I don’t how many towels they were consuming to wipe their faces and rackets!

They kept on holding their respective service games. It was 5 – 3 Nadal and serving for the set. And that’s when Djokovic found his opening finally, and broke Nadal’s serve. 5 – 4 Nadal. Djokovic still had to hold his serve, which he did once again in spite of some great push from Nadal! And the battle continued. It was finally 6 – 6! A tiebreaker!

Djokovic has much better record in tiebreakers compared to both Nadal and Federer. Here also he went up 5 – 2 in the tiebreaker. Now it was Nadal’s time to fight back, which he did. And evened the tiebreaker score to 5 – 5. But Djokovic prevailed and finally won 7 – 5.

The set was over! One hour and 15 minutes of pure bliss. The crowd was on its feet, giving them a huge standing ovation! Clapping didn’t stop for almost 5 minutes! And the two players were sitting in their chairs with heads covered in their towels trying to catch some breath – oblivious to the crowd! Over the years I have seen several great matches on TV! But watching a great game live in the stadium is something else!

Second set started with a great anticipation! But it turned out to be a bit of an anti-climax! Djokovic had found his momentum, while Nadal probably was tired. The first set, which he should have won, probably had drained every ounce of energy from his body! Plus, his injured legs were also giving up. Djokovic took an early lead and didn’t give Nadal any chance! Trailing at 2 – 4, Nadal gave one last try, but it wasn’t enough. Djokovic finally won 6 – 2 in the set. Once again, a standing ovation for the two legends! While Nadal gingerly walked back, Djokovic was telling the TV reporter (Pam Shriver) – “just unbelievable! What a match! I just don’t know how I won that first set!”…

All exhausted (just by watching!), we were in desperate need for that glass of chilled beer – $8 be damned! We sat on the lawn outside the stadium, under a tree for next hour or so – quietly sipping that chilled beer, all mesmerized! Thank you, Rafael Nadal! Thank you, Novak Djokovic, for the memories!!

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images by Prashant

BTW – I did watch the India – Pakistan match next day, which I had tapped! 😊

An exclusive blog by Prashant Vaidya

Prashant a proud Parle resident who has played a lot of cricket in 70s is NRI now and an avid sports fan as well.