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Steve Flink: Djokovic topples the Clay Court King

4/22/2013 1:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

After his semifinal triumph over Fabio the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters the other day, Novak Djokovic made a comment that struck me as unusually revelatory for a great player heading into a very important duel against a premier rival. Explaining how he felt about confronting Rafael Nadal in the final as the Spaniard looked to seal a ninth consecutive crown.on the red clay, Djokovic was pointed and surprisingly candid in his remarks. He said, “I need to have a very optimistic mindset in order to get a win. I’m not going out there to play my best:  I’m going out there to win.”

Those were not outlandish words from a player trying to talk himself into something that might be beyond his grasp. To the contrary, Djokovic was simply telling the world that he believed in himself and liked his chances. The Serbian was alerting everyone that he was ready to take on the man whom nearly all experts believe is the greatest clay court player in the history of the game. Djokovic was making a serious statement that he was more than prepared to back up strong words with decisive action. The world No. 1 gave a sterling performance in eclipsing the redoubtable Nadal, taking the final round clash 6-2, 7-6 (1) over the Spaniard, demonstrating at this stage of his career that he is the ultimate all surface player.

That Djokovic was even standing across the net from Nadal for the final of this prestigious Masters 1000 event was a testament to his immense determination to be the victor in Monte Carlo for the first time in his career. In six previous appearances, he had twice been to the finals, losing on both occasions to Nadal (in 2009 and 2012). But ten days before he played his first match this time around, Djokovic had suffered a jarring and somewhat frightening ankle injury during his Davis Cup victory over Sam Querrey of the U.S. He was not entirely sure until the last minute that he would be fit to play Monte Carlo, and was clearly uncomfortable in his first two victories over Mikhail Youzhny and Juan Monaco, coming from a set down to win both encounters in three sets. Youzhny stayed with Djokovic all the way to 4-4 in the final set before bowing.

But Djokovic’s demeanor after those wins was evidence in abundance of how much this tournament meant to him, perhaps because he owns a home in that community and has so many friends who live there. He was exultant to a degree I have seldom seen from him, even at the majors. In any event, the ankle problem seemed fundamentally diminished as he cut down Jarkko Nieminen and Fognini with clinical efficiency in his quarterfinal and semifinal assignments.

Nadal, meanwhile, was struggling to find his sharpest clay court form despite playing three events on that surface at the start of his comeback earlier in the season, including tournament victories in Sao Paulo and Acapulco. There was considerable evidence to indicate that Nadal was better prepared to step out onto the clay of Monte Carlo than he had been in a very long while. Normally, that tournament marks the start of his annual campaign on the dirt. But the fact remains that Nadal is still relatively early in his comeback. Monte Carlo was only his fifth tournament after seven months away from the game, and even after unexpectedly winning Indian Wells on the hard courts in his previous outing, Nadal is still feeling his way back to his zenith, trying to recover all of his old confidence and all-consuming intensity. He is not there yet.

After he took his first two matches easily on the red clay at one of his favorite locations, Nadal was pushed close to his limits in the quarterfinals by the gifted Grigor Dimitrov, the stylish Bulgarian so many refer to as “ Little Federer”. Dimitrov has a terrific one-handed backhand, extraordinary shotmaking capabilities, a passion for performing on a big stage, and major league court presence. After Nadal claimed the first set of their contest 6-2, Dimitrov refused to surrender the way so many players do when they are down a set against the masterful Spaniard on clay. He raised the level of his game considerably, rolling his returns deep at a high trajectory, exploiting sharp angles off his backhand, cracking forehands at high velocity.

Dimitrov recouped to take the second set 6-2 as Nadal surprisingly let his guard down at significant moments. Nadal squandered a 40-0 lead on his serve in the last game of the second set, and thus unnecessarily allowed the surging Bulgarian the luxury of serving first in the final set. In his first four service games in that tense third set, Dimitrov allowed Nadal only three points and the Spaniard had to fight his way out of some tight corners. Serving at 2-3, Nadal was taken to deuce, but flattened out a backhand approach down the line that Dimitrov could not answer. In the eighth game, Nadal was in more difficulty. At 3-4, 30-30, six points from a stinging defeat, Nadal went wide to the forehand with an unstoppable first serve in the deuce court court, and subsequently held on for 4-4.

Dimitrov started cramping in the ninth game, and Nadal took his game up a notch. He broke, and then served out the match at 5-4, wrapping it all up with an ace down the T on his second match point, gaining the victory 6-2, 2-6, 6-4. In the semifinals, Nadal seemed certain to cast aside the always exhilarating yet often irregular Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. The Spaniard won the first set 6-3 and served for the match at 5-1 in the second, but did not press his advantage. With Tsonga serving at 2-5, Nadal reached triple match point at 0-40, but the Frenchman explosively held on. Nadal served for the match a second time at 5-3, and rebounded from 15-40 to deuce with a pair of aces, only to squander that opportunity. Tsonga made it back to 5-5, but Nadal garnered a fourth match point with the charismatic Frenchman serving at 5-6, only to miss-hit a backhand badly out of court.

At long last, Nadal gathered himself admirably in the tie-break, capturing four points in a row from 3-3 to close out a 6-3, 7-6 (3) victory. But surely his form in both the Dimitrov and Tsonga matches was not a source of encouragement as he walked on court to face Djokovic for the 34th time in their illustrious rivalry. Nadal boosters were surely mildly hopeful that their man could rise to the occasion against his formidable rival. The prodigious left-hander had lost no fewer than seven times in a row to the remarkable Serbian in 2011 and 2012, dropping each and every one of those battles in finals, suffering three consecutive defeats in Grand Slam championship finals. But Nadal had restored his belief against Djokovic by routing the Serbian 6-3, 6-1 in the final of Monte Carlo last year before upending his chief adversary in the finals of Rome and Roland Garros.

They had not met since Nadal beat Djokovic in that 2012 French Open final, which gave the Spaniard a 19-14 lead in their career series. Now they were back on the clay again, leading many observers to the conclusion that Nadal would prevail. But what many probably overlooked was how well Djokovic had performed against Nadal in toppling the Spaniard in the 2011 red clay finals at both Rome and Madrid. Djokovic was magnificent in winning both duels, and might have had the gumption to defeat Nadal again at Roland Garros. Instead, he was stunned by an inspired Roger Federer in the semifinals of that 2011 French Open, and Nadal went on to halt Federer in the final.

A year ago in the spring, Nadal was revitalized in many ways on the clay and nearly unbeatable, while Djokovic was perhaps preoccupied by the death of his grandfather. Nadal was superb in stopping Djokovic at Monte Carlo, but the Serbian was decidedly below par. In Rome, Djokovic improved his play considerably but Nadal was unyielding on the big points as he prevailed 7-5, 6-3. And then, at Roland Garros, the two warriors fought it out on a miserable day in the rain, with Nadal moving ahead two sets to love and 2-0 in the third set. Djokovic then took his game to an entirely different level and collected an astounding eight games in a row to win the third set and build a 2-0 lead in the fourth. After Nadal held on in the third game, play was halted in the abysmally wet conditions. When they returned a day later, Nadal methodically came through to win 6-4, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5.

And yet, Nadal played only two more matches in 2012 after that landmark seventh French Open title win last June, suffering an astonishing loss to an almost crazed Lukas Rosol in the second round of Wimbledon, then staying away from tennis until February to heal his ailing knee. In that span, Djokovic consolidated his status as the game’s finest player, finishing a second year in a row at No. 1 in the world. He then commenced 2013 with his third consecutive Australian Open triumph. Unfortunately for Nadal, Djokovic’s mindset now is more aligned with 2011 than the difficult spring of 2012.

From the outset of Sunday’s final in Monte Carlo, it was apparent that Djokovic was not bluffing; he plainly believed that the result of this final would be determined by him and not his opponent. Djokovic imposed himself thoroughly, unrelentingly, and intelligently. He took calculated risks, broke down Nadal off both sides, and returned so brilliantly that Nadal had to keep making adjustments on his delivery to prevent the Serbian from stampeding him with depth, pace and extraordinary precision. Djokovic served exceptionally well himself, and his timing off the ground was magnificent.

In the end, there was nowhere for Nadal to hide under the onslaught. He did his inimitable best to step in and control rallies, to move from defense to offense in the blink of an eye, to assert himself meaningfully. But this was a day when it was exceedingly difficult for Nadal to play on his own terms, even on his beloved clay. Djokovic was smothering him in every way. He was mixing up the direction of his backhand beautifully; at one stage in the middle of the match, he had hit 52% of his backhands crosscourt and 48% down the line. Nadal was scampering every which way, but, especially in the first set, there was too little room for him to maneuver.

Djokovic simply came out of the blocks with utter abandon, with soaring confidence and a complete lack of inhibition. Not only did he fare very well with his crosscourt backhand versus the renowned forehand of Nadal, but the Serbian was feeling the ball fantastically off the forehand, driving that shot crosscourt mightily and strategically, displaying ball control that was almost beyond reason. The forehand was so commanding that Nadal could not retaliate with any regularity off his two-hander. The patterns of this match were working almost entirely in Djokovic’s favor.

The Serbian opened by holding at 15, closing that game with an ace down the T. Nadal could sense that he was in for a hard afternoon against his highly charged and purposeful rival. In the second game, the Spaniard was uptight, knowing he needed to stay with Djokovic hold for hold until he could find his range and bearings. At 15-0, Nadal double faulted, yet he still advanced to 40-30. He tried to hurt Djokovic with a backhand crosscourt, but the Serbian replied with a blistering forehand down the line that Nadal could not handle. Nadal earned a second game point, but Djokovic’s return bounded off the net cord and fell over for a winner. For the third time, Nadal reached game point, but Djokovic forced him into a backhand error with an impeccably struck forehand.

Djokovic soon made it to break point, and swiftly converted, sending a backhand down the line that clipped the edge of the sideline and drew an error from Nadal. Djokovic had moved to 2-0 with persistence. He was pushed to deuce in the third game, but he swung Nadal wide in the deuce court with an excellent serve, opening up the court for a forehand down the line that was unanswerable. At game point, Djokovic was stretched out on the forehand but produced a biting low slice crosscourt that provoked an error from the Spaniard. It was 3-0 for Djokovic, but he was not content with that lead. Nadal reached 30-0 in the fourth game, but double faulted. Djokovic pounced, using a backhand drop shot to draw Nadal in, then rolling a forehand down the line into the clear. Djokovic followed with a clean winner off the backhand, and then an understandably beleaguered Nadal netted a backhand under duress. Djokovic arrived at 4-0, and then held easily at 15 for 5-0, closing out that game with another ace.

Nadal needed to fight furiously to avoid losing that first set 6-0. He saved five set points at 0-5, four with first serves that Djokovic could not get back in play. After four deuces, Nadal held on, and that gutsy stand was crucial in enabling him to feel he could somehow work his way into the match. Djokovic had been absolutely in the zone, and had he sealed the set 6-0 he might have kept soaring above and beyond anything Nadal could hope to manufacture. Serving for the set at 5-1, Djokovic seemed snapped out of his unconscious state at last. He missed a couple of volleys, and Nadal rushed him into a forehand error with a penetrating backhand crosscourt. Nadal had broken for 2-5, and was sinking his teeth deeper into the contest.

And yet, Djokovic was not flustered. After Nadal gamely fought off two more set points in the eighth game, Djokovic released a scintillating backhand crosscourt to set up a forehand winner to the open court. Down set point for the eighth time, Nadal could rescue himself no more. He went for a big second serve down the T, and that delivery landed wide. The double fault gave Djokovic the set, 6-2. He had broken Nadal for the third time in the set and had won the set comfortably in the end, but the fact remained that the Spaniard was not as disheartened and was ready to start anew in the second set.

With Djokovic serving at 1-1, Nadal reached 15-40, but he squandered those two break point opportunities with an errant backhand return off a wide but not particularly good serve, and a forehand down the line error born of frustration. That shot was never in the cards, but Nadal was overanxious and guilty of uncharacteristically bad shot selection. Djokovic held on for 2-1, but Nadal admirably was looking for every conceivable opening to dictate off the forehand. He held at 15 for 2-2 with an ace out wide in the deuce court. In the fifth game, Djokovic slipped to 15-40 when he misplayed an inside-out forehand from close range. He saved one break point, but drove a two-hander wide down the line on the second. Nadal had the break for 3-2. He held on in the sixth game from deuce, acing Djokovic wide in the deuce court again, then sending a second serve into the body that lured Djokovic into an error.

The Spaniard was ahead 4-2, but these days Djokovic makes a habit out of digging himself out of danger. He took the next three games by sweeping 12 of 15 points. Just like that, Djokovic was on the verge of victory. Nadal was serving to stay in the match at 4-5, but he held his nerve and his serve with aplomb at 30. On the last point of that game, Djokovic netted a routine backhand return off a relatively weak second serve. Nadal had climbed back to 5-5, and now he lifted his game another notch. At 15-30 in the eleventh game, Nadal miss-hit a return, causing Djokovic to err on a backhand down the line approach. On the following point, Djokovic narrowly missed another two-hander up the line. Nadal had moved to 6-5, and was serving for the set, somehow building that lead despite being slightly outplayed.

Once more, Djokovic did not panic. On the crucial first point of the twelfth game, Nadal left a backhand crosscourt too short. Djokovic stepped in and drove a forehand winner up the line. Then Djokovic backed Nadal up with a deep backhand crosscourt return, coaxing Nadal into a forehand mistake. A scorching forehand down the line from Djokovic led to a crosscourt forehand winner for the Serbian. He soon broke at love to reach a tie-break, and never really looked back. In that sequence, Djokovic gave nothing away, and Nadal pressed as he seldom does. The errors of anxiety came in clusters from the Spaniard as Djokovic played with sensible conservatism. Djokovic got the mini-break for 2-0 on a forehand unforced error from the Spaniard. After Nadal took the next point, he made three consecutive unforced mistakes, two off the forehand side. With Nadal serving at 1-5, Djokovic produced one of his patented forehand down the line returns that Nadal could barely touch.

Serving at 6-1, Djokovic sealed the verdict emphatically, lacing an inside-out forehand winner. He had captured eleven of the last twelve points as Nadal virtually advertised his discomfort. The match statistics told a big part of the story. Nadal won only 55% of his first serve points and a dismal 32% of his second serve points. Under those circumstances, he did very well to nearly win a set. Now Djokovic has secured every Masters 1000 crown except for Cincinnati, which he is bound to win over the next couple of years. Nadal still holds a 12-3 career lead over Djokovic on clay, but they have split their last six encounters on that surface. The plot thickens. Djokovic’s Monte Carlo victory over Nadal will surely propel him into the clay court season, and fuel the Serbian enormously for the crucial weeks ahead in places like Madrid, Rome, and, of course, Roland Garros.

Djokovic needs the French Open to become only the eighth man in history to win all four majors over the course of a career. In that elite company are Fred Perry, Don Budge, Roy Emerson, Rod Laver, Andre Agassi, Federer, and Nadal. Djokovic came very close to realizing that goal a year ago, but had the added burden of trying to become the first man since Laver in 1969 to collect four Grand Slam singles championships in a row. I fully expect Nadal to take this loss in the right light, to go back to work with added gusto, to probably win two of the three clay court tournaments he will play leading up to Roland Garros, beginning with Barcelona this week. But Djokovic will not rest on his laurels. He has never played a better set on clay than he did against Nadal on Sunday. He will be an awfully confident competitor in both Madrid and Rome. The stage is set for a stirring clay court campaign. But if I had to pick a 2013 French Open champion at this moment, I would choose Novak Djokovic despite all of my respect for and even awe of Rafael Nadal.
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.