After a while it seemed superfluous to take notes. What for? The score? But really the only score on that January evening was a musical one. Every shot a note. Like Rachmaninoff at work. Something pure and perfect.
Anyway, taking notes at a tennis match is to help tell a story, to record a duel, to detail upheaval in a contest, the changes of momentum, but there was none of that here in the Australian Open final.
Nothing but pitiless perfection for Rafael Nadal from Novak Djokovic. It reminded me of a time when Michael Kasprowicz said of Sachin Tendulkar: “Don’t bowl him bad balls, he hits the good ones for fours." Beauty as savagery.
Once in a while we meet perfect and it comes without warning. A high dive here, a goal there. Even the player can’t foretell it. But is perfection the idea of sport, or winning? Maybe if you chase the first, you find the second. When it arrives, it can be heard, like Virat Kohli’s second ball in Perth last December which he drives for four and from miles away, through your television, you hear flawlessness. Four overs later he flicks Josh Hazlewood for three boundaries in four balls, as if dismissing him from his presence. It is the easy conceit of perfection.
Perfection arrives briefly, for an innings, a Messi gallop, the duration of a balance beam routine, Michael Phelps taking a turn, just long enough to tell you it exists and short enough to remind you it can’t be held.
Athletes call it the “zone", an unpoetic word for a faultless state, and it’s like briefly travelling to a territory where skill is turned on by a switch. During his 1990 US Open final against Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras wrote: “The match at my end was played in a fog of inevitability and invincibility.... To this day I have a visceral memory of that feeling and rhythm. I could feel the ace coming before I hit it: All right, I’m gonna pop an ace, here it comes—boom! Ace!"
This is the ultimate athletic destination, the kingdom of control. “Every professional athlete wants to be in the zone," said Djokovic in Australia, “where everything flows so effortlessly and you are executing automatically everything you are intending to execute. You don’t need to think too much. I guess you’re driven by some force that takes over you and you feel divine, you feel like in a different dimension."
Athletes feel perfection, it’s not a score as much as a sensation. In a story I’ve possibly told before, Abhinav Bindra once revealed that during a week of practice in 2004, he shot six consecutive scores of 600/600 and yet it wasn’t perfect because he didn’t feel perfect. I was confused but later I understood—only the athlete knows perfection, if the harmony they seek has come, if flow has arrived, if execution has met idea, if tension has slipped from the body to let technique reign. Last week, Bindra told me that of all his 600/600 scores, this is how many qualified as a “perfect performance": just one.
But because shooters—and divers, swimmers, gymnasts—can’t slide tackle each other like footballers, or negate each other’s finely laid plans like badminton players, one athlete’s perfection doesn’t hurt the other as much. The shooter is oblivious of the competitor a metre away and the gymnast is unconcerned by a rival performing in another corner of the arena. They can’t affect each other. But the boxer can. His perfection can be felt by a rival in every whistling, pain-stirring, teeth-extracting hook.
Of course there are exceptions. In 1968, long jumper Bob Beamon—who just, by the way, had sex the night before his event, which dissolves every argument about intercourse and athletic performance—leapt 8.90m at the Mexico Olympics. It is a distance meaningless without context. In September 1964, Ralph Boston broke the long jump world record by 3cm. In 1965, he took the record a further centimetre forward. Incremental brilliance.
Then Beamon, leaping across the divide between impressive and immaculate, broke the record by 55cm.
This was perfection and it deflated Lyn Davies, the 1964 Olympics long jump champion, who—as The Complete Book Of The Olympics states—turned to Beamon and said, “You have destroyed this event."
This is what Djokovic did, he wrecked the final. But perfection can be a strange thing, it can ruin a contest and yet elevate a game. It can brush off notions of a classic and yet be epic in the shots that are forged.
Djokovic was so indecipherable that Nadal, who had played him 52 times before, looked like he was reading James Joyce in Swahili. He kept going in one direction, the ball in another. You can’t translate genius in such a mood. Over 269 points in the semis and final, Djokovic made only 14 mistakes. Blemishes whose only objective was to confirm his humanness.
In some way this was sport at its most barbaric, in its reduction of the other player to nothing, a prop in the service of perfection. No other art form, not painting, music, poetry, is like this, where beauty comes with a certain meanness. As if cruelty is the necessary price of sublimity.
The awful irony is that the only other person in the stadium who might perfectly understand this perfection, who could appreciate its difficulty and fathom its purity of form, is the rival. The beaten man who aspires to this level, who has even touched this level, and thus acknowledges the player who finds it. Only Rafael Nadal knew how difficult it was to do to him what was being done to him.
Rohit Brijnath is an assistant sports editor at The Straits Times, Singapore, and a co-author of Abhinav Bindra’s book, A Shot At History: My Obsessive Journey To Olympic Gold.