- Howard Bryant, ESPN Senior Writer
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NEW YORK -- Rafael Nadal hasn't been seen since Lukas Rosol shook hands with the devil and executed the match of his life. Nadal fell victim to forehands skipping on the chalk and serves at 130 mph to the corners. It sent Rosol to one of the great Wimbledon upsets.
It sent Nadal off the scene. Injury kept him from the Olympics, the North American hard-court season and now the U.S. Open, where he was a champion and a finalist the past two years. He will affect this tournament only through his physical absence and the prescience of old wisdom. Last year, between Novak Djokovic defeating Nadal in four routine sets, both at Wimbledon and Flushing Meadows, Nadal admitted the Serb possessed a mental edge over him and generally said Djokovic was the better player. But it came with one important caveat: Djokovic was also in supernova mode, one of the great and historic runs in the game and no one should expect such perfection to become the norm.
"My experience says this level is not forever," Nadal said in the summer of 2011. "Even for me when I was last year winning three Grand Slams, my level of last year is not forever. Probably the level of Novak today is not forever."
If it sounded somewhat of sour grapes at the time, Nadal's secondary assessment of Djokovic has essentially defined Djokovic's follow-up campaign of 2012, in which he has been excellent but not invincible.
Djokovic has won three titles this year: the epic Australian Open over Nadal and two Masters 1000 series in Miami and Toronto. He reached the French Open final, losing to Nadal. Djokovic lost three other Masters Series finals, losing to Nadal twice on the clay in Monte Carlo and Rome and to Federer on the hard court in Cincinnati -- all of which represents a very successful year.
Yet the question and the feeling is that Djokovic is vulnerable because he's only won one major, that there is "something wrong." Djokovic lost to Federer in their past two meetings and he did not medal in the Olympics, losing to Andy Murray and then Juan Martin del Potro in the bronze-medal match. But the answer may quite simply be this: Nadal was right. There is nothing at all wrong with Djokovic. The only problem with Djokovic is the impossible standard he created and its frightful accompanying aura.
"It's been a long season and a long summer, but my year has been really good," Djokovic said Saturday. "It's hard to compare obviously with 2011, even though I've got that question asked many times, 'What's changed from 2011?'
"But I actually try to always look from a positive side. I do feel physically stronger and very prepared than I did last year," he said. "Mentally, I had some ups and downs throughout the season, but I think that was to be expected. It's really hard to expect to five or six months without losing a match on this level."
Djokovic is flawed the way Bob Gibson was flawed when he backed up perhaps the greatest pitching season in history in 1968 with a 20-13, 2.18 ERA campaign the next year. Nadal was in the same boat when he followed up winning three majors in 2010 to winning only one major and losing in six out of 10 finals, with five of those losses coming from one guy, Djokovic.
Djokovic has appeared distracted at times during the season, understandable following the death of his grandfather, Vladimir, during Monte Carlo. He has struggled within matches but no more than Federer has at various points. Djokovic is the defending champion here, and it should be noted that all three of his 2012 titles have come on hard courts and that he hasn't lost a five-set match on this surface in two years, since Nadal beat him in the U.S. Open final in 2010.
Like Nadal in 2011, Djokovic has had to deal with the dual effects of momentum. Although Djokovic surged to the top, the field has responded by increasing its level. In 2011, it was Djokovic who was ferocious, hungry and driven, aware that he was so close to solidifying a place with Nadal and Federer. Djokovic played with a steely, indomitable will, as if each match were a referendum on his worthiness, and, by extension, the worthiness of his country. Through winning matches as he appeared on life support, he had created a mystique of invincibility about himself and his game that as an opponent he was a horror-movie villain, able to be wounded but not killed.
Having wrested the peak from his peers, Djokovic may not have relaxed or expected the shots of 2012 to clip the tape as they did in 2011, but his results weren't only about him. He was now the target of a resurgent Nadal, whose entire career seemed to tilt on whether he could finally overcome Djokovic. In return, Nadal played Djokovic with a furious desperation, winning in three finals this year, including a nervous, edgy affair at Roland Garros that denied Djokovic the Grand Slam, both career and consecutive.
Then there was Federer, quietly and elegantly devouring the field, hungry in his own right to remind history that to him, there is no Big Three as much as there is a Great One and two excellent and accomplished challengers. Since Federer lost to Djokovic and The Shot here last year, Federer has played with a throttling intensity, winning 17 straight matches, including Wimbledon. He regained the world No. 1 ranking and transformed the narrative of a wobbly end to an iconic career into an unquestioned mandate that has doused all debates.
Finally, Djokovic has had to deal also with a rising Andy Murray, whom Djokovic has said always has played him the toughest of the elite three.
Although Federer, Murray and Nadal have all been fueled by special motivation, the Djokovic challenge has been altered from being driven by validation to embracing the hunger that comes from being chased.
The truth about Djokovic is only slightly different than Nadal's truth last year: Virtually all tournaments still go through Djokovic. He has played in seven finals this year, all of them either majors or Masters 1000-level.
The question of what's wrong with Djokovic is very simple to answer: He's so good that living up to the face the mirror is a lot to ask.