I, chief Rafa Nadal fanboy in the US of A, am writing this at 10 a.m. on Sunday, fresh off the pain of watching my favorite athlete in the universe suffer a thorough Australian Open beatdown at the hands of Novak Djokovic. Despite the newness of the defeat, Djoker had the courtesy to put Rafa die-hards like myself out of our misery quickly. It was clear after three games that he was going to win—he looked like the loose, borderline cocky gumby-like prodigy of our nightmares—and by the time he clinched his first break in the second set, all hope was gone. Rafa fought, because that's what he does, but there was no amount of sheer will that could have overcome the talent deficit on display. Which means, unlike the aggravating Wimbledon semifinal loss last year, it's not that hard for me to put this into context.
Here's the context: Rafa was probably playing the best hardcourt tennis of his career these last two weeks, due in large part to a revamped serve that ate up the best players in the world. He didn't lose a set before the final, but that doesn't quite tell the story—other than a listless third set against Thomas Berdych that went to a tiebreak, he didn't come close to losing a set. The young stars of the game turned into ground beef when they stood across the net. Not even Stefanos Tsitsipas, the bright light of the next generation and the guy who faced down Roger Federer, could come close to making a dent. To watch his press conference afterward was to see someone who had been humbled by a merciless tennis deity. Rafa was a wrecking ball.
On the other side of the draw, Djokovic was dominating too, like we all knew he would. But he lost a couple sets along the way, and while nobody in their right minds would ever believe that Rafa would have it easy in the final, it did seem like, at the very very least, we were in for another classic.
Instead, the the second-most dominant player in the tournament, a living legend, was made to look like a junior player on the biggest stage. And it raised a question: Just how superior is Djokovic? If he crushed a scintillating Rafa like that, exactly how many levels has he risen above everyone else? Rafa's new and improved serve wilted in the face of the greatest returner the game has ever seen, with even his best and most precise missiles coming back hard and deep. He just barely won half his serves—half!—while Djokovic won 81% of his. Rafa's famous hyper-spun forehands were transformed by instant alchemy into backhand down-the-line darts, and almost every time they got into an extended rally, Djokovic ran him to death.
It was a virtuoso performance, and even that word, "virtuoso," might not be good enough. So let's make the tough admission and state the unavoidable truth...coming from someone who has previously argued that Rafa should be anointed as the GOAT over the likes of Federer, I confess to for the historical record that there has never been a player as magnificent as Novak Djokovic, ever, in the history of tennis. For all intents and purposes, he is the greatest.
I can't prove this by the numbers quite yet, unless you look at his 28-25 career lifetime record against Nadal or his 25-22 mark against Fed, or the fact that he's the only man ever to win all nine Masters 1000 series tournaments, or that he's better than Federer and just percentage points behind Nadal in career winning percentage, or...okay, you can kinda argue by the numbers. But he doesn't have as many ATP wins as Nadal or Federer, and his major total, now 15, trails both men (17 for Rafa, 20 for Federer). Depending on injuries and the ravages of time, he may exceed them both by next year, or he may never quite get there. I tend to think he'll reach 21 before it's all over, especially in the absence of any young geniuses that have shown the ability to challenge the three kings, but that's speculative.
What I can say, and what I believe is obvious, is that his peak form represents the greatest tennis the world has ever seen, and I find it impossible to credit any argument to the contrary. Australia 2019 was the latest proof, but we've seen it time and again—in terms of pure talent and mental toughness, nobody can touch his best. And on behalf of Rafa zealots everywhere, I curse his very existence.
Tough Son (Daughter?) of a Gun of the Week: Naomi Osaka
Imagine this: You're 21 years old, and you have three points to win a grand slam tennis event. You've worked your tail off to outplay an extremely good player, and now it's 0-40 on her serve. But she fights back, and then, with a chance to serve out the match, you blow it. Now it's 5-5 in the second, and you completely melt down. You lose 17 of 21 points, lose the set, and as you plead with the universe and look like you're about to cry, the crowd hisses at you when you hit a ball angrily into the net after the latest lost point. The entire world is crashing in on you, and you're facing a deciding third set.
What do you do?
The answer, for 99.9999% of human beings, at any level of competition, is "continue to melt down." But Naomi Osaka did this instead:
That's stupidly tough. That's a kind of resilience and mental control that nobody should have at age 21, regardless of talent. According to her, she tried to kill all her feelings in the third set and become a robot, and though she said this with some humor, that's actually an incredibly mature ability to have. She's going to be a force in the women's game for a very, very long time. And for what it's worth, she's a delight:
Stunner of the Week: LeBron is Trying to Get Another Coach Fired
Breaking away from tennis at the end here, I have some news that will shock and alarm you: LeBron James, having migrated to a new team, doesn't like the fact that he didn't get to pick the coach, and now he wants that coach fired. Now, you might think that after he tried the same exact thing against Erik Spoelstra in Miami (unsuccessfully) and David Blatt in Cleveland (successfully), it should be no surprise that Lakers head coach Luke Walton is effectively in his sights—though he's using his team to spread the word rather than saying anything publicly himself. Jackie McMullan of ESPN came out with the scoop on a recent podcast:
"There's a lot of tension in that building...a lot of tension in that building, and I think people are wondering about Luke Walton even though Jeanie Buss came out very strongly and said 'I want Luke to be here, I back him 100 percent,' but then also made the point that has to be made, and that's that she hired Earvin Magic Johnson to make these decisions, and if Earvin feels differently she gave him the power to make those kinds of decisions. It's clear to me, and probably to you Brian, that LeBron's camp would prefer a coaching change. They're not too subtle about that. I don't think that's fair, I don't."
There's so much good to be said about LeBron, on so many different subjects, but if you're his coach and he didn't expressly bless your hire? Watch out, because you are in the crosshairs. And I heard Tyronn Lue is available...