Mamma Mia! What a Nardi Boy: Italy’s Poster Boy Posterizes Djokovic

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Bill Simons

Indian Wells

The crowd, the media and the No. 123 player in the world were in shock. Indian Wells’ lucky loser had just done the unthinkable. A 20-year-old Italian kid, Luca Nardi, who as an eight-year-old put a poster of his idol, Novak Djokovic, on his bedroom wall, posterized the GOAT 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, in an upset that shook the tennis world.

It was one thing that Italian Jannik Sinner beat Novak twice in 12 days. That was stunning. But Sinner was No. 3 in the world. Nardi’s third-round win tonight was seismic – a 9.0 quake.

Djokovic, the tournament favorite who had won five times here before, suffered a devastating loss. He’s won only one match here since 2019, and, with Federer retired and Nadal injured, the Big Three have only won one match here between them over the past two years.

But tonight was about a wide-eyed kid with a forehand – an outsider playing free. Sportswriters are not supposed to say an athlete is unknown. It’s disrespectful – someone knows everyone. But certainly Nardi is, shall we say, little known. He hadn’t won a match since last April. Sure, he’d won four challengers, but he’d never won a main level title and only has a dreary 4-12 record on the ATP tour.

But he had a few things going for him. He had nothing to lose. He had luck on his side. He not only got into the draw when Tomas Martin Etcheverry withdrew, he got a seed – and Novak had never seen him play. Plus Djokovic (who’s won the Italian Open six times and speaks fluent Italian) has been floundering recently against Italians. Four of his last five losses had been against Italians, including at the ATP Finals, Davis Cup and at the Australian Open.

Mamma mia!

But give Nardi full credit. He quickly unleashed his mighty forehand. He played freely, displayed his athleticism, ran the GOAT to the far corners of the garden (the Indian Wells Tennis Garden) and took the first set 6-3.

But we’ve been to this rodeo before. Novak has no problem losing a set. Some say he likes it that way. He toys with his foes – it’s more of a challenge. He lost a set to Aleksander Vukic in the first round.

Jim Courier said what every fan in the place was thinking: “At any moment, the wheels could come off. There’s a reason Nardi is ranked what he is.”

So, as if on cue, Djokovic (who’s won 24 Slams and five Indian Wells titles, but none since 2016), broke the wannabe twice in the second set. Now, said confident press room pundits, Novak would cruise.

But not so fast. Early in the third set, Luca gained three break points. Novak battled to win the second game of the set. But it was hardly a desert breeze. It took him over 12 minutes. Then Nardi unleashed a brilliant backhand-forehand one-two punch and an ace to break and go up 4-2. Soon he raced to a match point.

He could have choked. Maybe he should have choked. Instead, the young, fearless warrior hit a 109 mph ace and dropped his jaw as he claimed his three-set victory. The lowest ranked player to ever beat Djokovic in a masters tourney told the crowd, “I’m speechless. Yesterday it was a dream, [today] it’s real. I was feeling the ball very good.”

You think?

For his part, Novak said his foe “really didn’t have anything to lose, so he played great. Deserved to win. I was more surprised with my level…really, really bad…These two things came together. He’s having a great day, I’m having a really bad day. [That] results as a negative outcome for me…I helped him play well, and I didn’t help myself at all…I made some really terrible unforced errors. Just quite defensive tennis…He stepped in…He was playing more free and more aggressive.”

We asked the Serb whether he could have done anything different. He replied, “[I could have done] everything differently.” As for his un-Djokovic-like year so far, Novak said, “No titles this year – that’s not something I’m used to.”

And we’re not used to the No. 123 player in the world posterizing the No. 1 player in the world.

Then again, how many boys put a poster of a tennis player up in their room at eight and keep it there for twelve years? Nardi said, “Every night I go to bed I see Novak.” And he confirmed that he is going to keep it that way.

NO POPCORN, FOLKS: There won’t be a fourth-round popcorn match between the two most charismatic woman players in the game, Coco Gauff and Naomi Osaka. Naomi’s comeback hopes were put on pause after she lost 7-5, 6-4 to No. 24, Belgian Elise Mertens.

ANOTHER END TO ANOTHER ERA: Coco Gauff has won her last singles match as a teen. When she was asked if it feels strange to play the last match of her teen years, Coco said, “I mean, every year at this tournament it’s going to be my last match of some age. So, yeah, it doesn’t feel weird.” As for what it  means to turn 20, she said, “I’m just happy to be alive. And to see 20. I don’t wanna jinx it – hopefully I won’t, and I’ll see it in a few days.”

EMMA RADUCANU BY THE NUMBERS: The appealing, injury-prone Brit, Emma Raducanu, who pushed No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka today before losing, may be the most charismatic well-known tennis player whose ranking has often been in triple figures.

Here are some stats: Age: 21. Number of Slams won: 1; ranking: 250; net worth: $12 million; number of top ten players she’s beaten: 0; number of surgeries she had in one ten-day stretch: 3; number of coaches she’s had: 5; number of the breakpoints she had against Sabalenka: 11; number of breakpoints she converted: 1.

WHAT DO RUSSIAN DISSIDENT YULIA NAVALNAYA AND A SWISS MAESTRO HAVE IN COMMON? Yulia Navalnaya, the widow of the Russian dissident Alexei Navlany, recently visited Stanford. Her daughter’s a student there.

On Monday, Roger Federer also visited the Farm. Nicolas Godsick, the son of Federer’s agent, Tony Godsick, is a Stanford freshman and competes on the Cardinal tennis team.

Federer, who was at the Oscars Sunday night in a gorgeous white jacket, also hung out with Steph Curry and the Warriors at the Chase Center. Now Indian Wells fans are hoping he’ll drop by the BNP Paribas Open.



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