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Steve Flink: Djokovic Remains Untouchable

3/21/2011 2:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Before toppling Rafael Nadal yesterday in the final at Indian Wells, the ever compelling Novak Djokovic had never prevailed from a set down in 23 previous meetings against his renowned Spanish adversary. All seven of his triumphs over Nadal had been carved out in straight sets. In five prior final round meetings against the redoubtable Nadal, Djokovic had yet to defeat one of the great front runners the sport has ever seen. Moreover, the 23-year-old Serbian had lost to Nadal in their two most recent confrontations, including the final of the 2010 U.S. Open.

There is more. Consider that Nadal is a champion who is almost impossible to stop in title round contests; across his career, he had won no fewer than 43 of his 56 finals as he showed up for his battle in California against Djokovic. Six of those thirteen losses were against Roger Federer alone.

And yet, despite the weight of these fundamentally significant historical facts, regardless of what Nadal had going for him, Djokovic carried something of inestimable value with him into his showdown with a rival he admires more than any other. He has not lost a tennis match anywhere in the world since Federer stopped him in the semifinals of the 2010 Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London. He then recorded two crucial singles victories for Serbia as they beat France to win the 2010 Davis Cup for the first time. Buoyant after that triumph, Djokovic swept through the Australian Open at the cost of only one set, and then went to Dubai and won there.

By the time he took on Nadal, a remarkably composed Djokovic was brimming with self conviction. He had won 19 matches in a row, and it seemed as if he could no longer remember how to lose. All champions going through golden patches talk about their extraordinary inner belief. They know that winning is a habit that can be just as hard to break as a losing streak, and the word they use without exception to explain their success is “confidence.” Djokovic is overflowing with confidence now, and that hidden weapon is inextricably intertwined with the advances he has made in his game. Djokovic has recaptured his capacity to serve with precision, fluidity, pace and authority. He has rediscovered his old backcourt consistency. He has turned his return of serve into arguably the best in all of tennis. And he has displayed much better anticipation at the net and improved technique on the volley. In every way, Novak Djokovic is a better tennis player than he has ever been before, and his boosters are justified to believe he has a good chance to finish 2011 as the best player in the world.

The view here is that Djokovic’s mindset has had more to do with his brilliant start to a still young 2011 season than anything else. Let’s look at how he recorded his biggest win yet over Nadal in this final at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells. In the opening set, Nadal was largely setting the tempo, controlling most of the rallies with his incomparable lefty forehand, striking the ball emphatically off both sides, leaving Djokovic confounded about how to alter the complexion of the match. Nadal was serving well at the outset, connecting with seven of nine first serves in his first two service games, losing only one point in the process. Yet Djokovic was just as effective. He made seven of ten first serves and dropped only two points in his first two service games. The battle was on. Both men were ready for the occasion, and eager to assert their authority.

Nadal grabbed the upper hand in the fifth game. He had Djokovic down 0-40 before making three unforced errors that allowed the Serbian back to deuce. Nadal earned a fourth break point, only to net a routine two-hander crosscourt into the net. Nevertheless, Nadal persisted, as he so often does. Djokovic double faulted to give Nadal a fifth break point, and now the Spaniard converted, measuring a backhand down the line well enough to coax an error from Djokovic. Nadal was up a break at 3-2, but Djokovic retaliated gamely. At 30-30 in the sixth game, Djokovic won an absorbing exchange with a spectacular two-handed backhand winner in response to a first rate backhand down the line from Nadal. On the following point, Nadal tried in vain to thwart Djokovic with an inside-out forehand, but the Serbian’s reply was an excellent forehand down the line that was virtually untouchable.

It was 3-3, but Nadal remained the better player at this stage. Djokovic had two game points in the seventh game, but could not exploit those opportunities. Nadal broke for 4-3 with a patented heavy topspin forehand that Djokovic could not handle with his two-hander. Despite connecting with only one of four first serves in the next game—and ominous sign of things to come—Nadal held at love for 5-3. Two games later, serving for the set at 5-4, Nadal missed three out of four first serves again, yet still held at love, helped by a 130 MPH ace out wide in the deuce court at 30-0. Despite his woes with the first serve, Nadal was winning a good many free points on his second serve. The depth and accuracy of that second delivery was one reason why Nadal was in good shape, but Djokovic was also strangely out of sorts on his backhand returns, failing to put enough of them back into play.

At the start of the second, Nadal’s first serve problems were still painfully apparent. He held at love for 1-1 despite missing every first serve in that game. He held at love again for 2-2 without getting a first serve in. Djokovic continued to struggle with those backhand returns. Nadal had won 16 of 18 second serve points at that juncture, but he was clearly preoccupied with his serving inefficiency. In his last four service games, he made good on only 2 of 18 first serves, and that was taking an emotional toll on the Spaniard. Djokovic, meanwhile, was stepping up the pace and depth of his ground strokes, and his inside-out forehand came alive.

With Nadal serving at 2-3, 40-15, Djokovic made his inevitable move, finding his range on his returns, forcing Nadal back on his heels. On his second break point in that game, Djokovic was the beneficiary of an unforced error off the forehand from a beleaguered Nadal, who knew he could no longer get away with such an alarmingly low first serve success rate. Nadal uncharacteristically pulled a forehand wide to lose that game, but played a brilliant game to break back immediately. Nadal won the first point with a scintillating topspin lob winner, and then rifled a startling backhand passing shot winner down the line. Eventually, Nadal broke at 30 as Djokovic double faulted long at 30-40.

Nadal was back on serve, but not for long. He rallied from 0-40 to 30-40 at 3-4, but once more his normally trustworthy forehand betrayed him. Nadal netted a forehand inside-in, and Djokovic was ahead 5-3, serving to make it one set all. Both players played an astonishing game. Djokovic seemed poised to hold at 40-15 but Nadal produced a remarkable forehand flick deep into the backhand corner that was too good. Djokovic then double faulted to make it deuce. Nadal would fight off three more set points, and would earn one break point himself. Through it all, Djokovic was calm and purposeful, a remarkable contrast to the way he appeared in my mind’s eye from days gone by under similarly stressful circumstances. On the sixth set point for the Serbian, Djokovic and Nadal had one of their typically fierce and high quality baseline exchanges, with both men shifting admirably from defense to offense in the blink of an eye. At the end of the rally, Nadal went for a backhand crosscourt winner, but narrowly missed it. Djokovic had the set, but Nadal’s spirited stand at the end made the third and final set an enticing prospect for all of us.

But while Djokovic emerged from that set concluding game with brightened spirits and a winner’s outlook, Nadal was essentially despondent and spent. At 15-15 in the first game of the final set, Nadal bungled an easy overhead from close range. A forehand unforced error put the Spaniard down 15-40, and he was clearly pressing. Nadal gave that game away with another glaring forehand unforced error, pulling his shot wide. Djokovic held at love for 2-0, and then got the insurance break in the third game. An unmistakably distraught Nadal was not his normal indefatigable self, and Djokovic surely recognized his opponent’s pessimism. Nadal missed six straight first serves and was broken at 30, conceding that game with a backhand unforced error to make it 3-0 for Djokovic, who quickly advanced to 4-0 with an ace at 40-15.

The rest was a formality. Nadal held from 15-30 in the fifth game, then held again at 1-5. In those last two serve games, Nadal was seven for eleven on first serves, but that was too little much too late. Djokovic closed out a well deserved 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 victory with a love game on serve. He had played terrific tennis to turn the match around after Nadal had thoroughly outplayed him in the opening set. He had also outthought Nadal on this occasion, playing a better tactical match. Most telling of all, he was decidedly more patient from the baseline than the Spaniard, and he won more than his share of the longer rallies.

Nadal was his own worst enemy on this occasion, refusing to take something off his first serve. He finished at a dismal 42% for the match, but his insistence on going for so many big serves instead of mixing it up more and going with the safer wide slice serve (around 105 MPH) in the Ad court was bewildering to me. This was one of those rare occasions when he got in his own way, but the fact remains that Djokovic was going to be very hard to beat even if Nadal had served decidedly better. Nadal was a baffled and frustrated figure on this occasion, but Djokovic deserves full marks for the major role he played in dampening Nadal’s spirits.

As impressive as Djokovic was in besting Nadal, his semifinal win over Federer was ample evidence that the Serbian was unshakable at Indian Wells. Both players had to deal with a higher degree of pressure than usual. Federer surely wanted to make amends for his straight set defeats at the hands of Djokovic in the semifinals of the Australian Open and the title round match at Dubai. In four tournament appearances this year, Federer has not lost to anyone else but the Serbian, yet this was a time and place he was eager to turn matters around and reassert his supremacy. In turn, Djokovic had never beaten Federer three times in a row during their rivalry, and the upside for him of a win over the Swiss was substantial.

At the outset, both players seemed understandably apprehensive. They both knew that Djokovic would move past Federer to No. 2 in the world if he could record a victory, but the tension went beyond the border of the rankings. This was an anxious moment for both competitors because until this juncture in their series Djokovic has seldom seemed to believe he could succeed on a regular basis against his formidable adversary. But after playing such a sterling Australian Open semifinal to beat Federer 7-6 (3), 7-5, 6-4, and then backing that up with a decisive 6-3, 6-3 final round triumph in Dubai, Djokovic sensed for the first time that he could put together an impressive streak against Federer and make it three in a row.

In any event, the first set turned in the direction of Djokovic in a long game at 2-2. Federer had two game points on his serve then, but Djokovic drew a running backhand error off the backhand from the Swiss on the first, and then released a forehand winner of his own on the second. When Djokovic wasted his first break point with a badly misplayed backhand down the line, he screamed at himself in exasperation, but quickly settled down to earn another opportunity. On his second break point, he got to 3-2 as Federer missed flagrantly off the forehand after miss-hitting a few balls during the baseline exchange. Djokovic was down 15-40 in the following game, but Federer made a forehand return error, and Djokovic hit an unstoppable serve to reach deuce.

Djokovic held on for 4-2 on his second game point, depositing a low forehand volley crosscourt into an empty court after making a first rate backhand approach. Both men held to make it 5-3 for Djokovic, but the Serbian gained another service break in the ninth game. From 15-15, Djokovic played two sparkling points in a row, winning the first by taking the net away from Federer and putting away a backhand volley, taking the next by drawing Federer in with a drop shot and using one passing shot to set up another. Federer saved one set point at 15-40, but he drove an inside-out forehand wide on the following point. The set belonged to Djokovic, 6-3. Djokovic had connected with 71% of his first serves while Federer was at only 57%. Moreover, Djokovic won 80% of his first serve points while Federer was down from his customary level at 65%.

In the third game of the second set, Federer imposed himself. At break point, Federer boldly struck a forehand down the line winner. He then got four out of five first serves in to hold easily for 3-1. With Federer serving at 3-2, 30-30, Djokovic tried a backhand drop volley, but Federer had time to scamper forward and guide a forehand down the line. Djokovic attempted a lob volley that had no depth, and Federer easily put that ball away. The Swiss moved methodically to 4-2. At 4-3, Federer served his first and only ace of the match, and held swiftly at 15 for 5-3. And so Djokovic was serving to stay in the set. Federer broke again to make it one set all, losing only one point in that game.

That meant Federer had the advantage of serving first in the final set, but he did not make the most of the opportunity, missing five of six first serves. At 30-40, Federer was caught off guard by an exceedingly deep crosscourt backhand from Djokovic. That shot hit the baseline, and Federer netted his backhand. Djokovic fell behind 15-40 in the second game when Federer hit his finest topspin backhand down the line of the match, elegantly driving that ball for a clean winner. But Federer netted the same shot on the following point, and Djokovic released a service winner into the body, forcing Federer to chip a backhand return into the net. Djokovic advanced to game point, then reached 2-0 when a deep second serve set him up for a forehand inside-in winner.

At 0-2, 15-30, Federer was in serious jeopardy, but he swept three points in a row, closing that game out with a service winner to the backhand. Federer then swung freely off the forehand to break back at love for 2-2. He opened that game with a topspin lob winner off the forehand, and got to 0-40 by stepping up the pace off that side substantially, rushing Djokovic into a mistake. At 0-40, Djokovic gambled wildly when he went for a 116 MPH second serve, double faulting. It was 2-2.

In the fifth game, with a chance to go ahead 3-2 on serve, Federer bolted to 40-15. But he lost eleven points in a row from that crucial juncture. At 40-15, Federer drove a topspin backhand long off Djokovic’s return of serve. Then he pulled a forehand approach wide off another return. Federer seemed on the edge of panic. He missed another topspin backhand long and then double faulted into the net. Federer had needlessly rushed himself out of a critical game. Just like that, Djokovic was back in charge, leading 3-2, and not willing to look back. He held at love for 4-2, and could see that he had broken much of Federer’s resolve, if not all of it. Federer drifted to 0-40 at 2-4, making three consecutive unforced errors off the forehand. He ended the eleven point losing streak and rallied to 30-40, but a poised Djokovic moved around his backhand for a forehand inside-in winner and a 5-2 lead.

Federer saved one match point in the eighth game with an acutely angled forehand inside-out that coaxed Djokovic into an error, and then the Swiss had a break point, which he squandered with a chipped backhand return sent tamely into the net off a second serve. Two points later, Djokovic wrapped up a 6-3, 3-6, 6-2 victory with a deep first serve to the forehand that Federer could not handle. Djokovic broke Federer three times in that final set, and turned what could have been a close set into a comfortable one. Too many times in the past, Djokovic had fallen into disrepair against Federer in clutch situations, but these days he is the decidedly better big point player. The rivalry now stands at 13-9 in favor of Federer.

Nadal, meanwhile, took on a surging Juan Martin Del Potro in the semifinals. The semifinal lineup was nothing short of stupendous. Here were the four men who had collected the last 24 Grand Slam championships among them. In that span, Federer had won 12 of those titles, Nadal had taken 9, Djokovic had garnered two, and Del Potro had come through to win one. It was the first meeting between Nadal and Del Potro since the Argentine toppled the Spaniard for the third time in a row 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 in the semifinals of the 2009 U.S. Open, a tournament Del Potro won over Federer. Del Potro, of course, was idle for most of 2010 with a wrist injury that required surgery. But the 6’6” big hitter has come rapidly back into his own in recent weeks, reaching the semifinals of San Jose and Memphis, winning at Delray Beach, and playing top level tennis at Indian Wells.

Del Potro had beaten the always dangerous Radek Stepanek, defending champion Ivan Ljubicic, the swiftly rising Alexandr Dolgopolov and Philipp Kohlschreiber. Del Potro toppled Kohlschreiber 7-6 (3), 7-6 (7), rescuing himself in daring fashion from 1-6 down in the second set tie-break. He got a default from Tommy Robredo in the quarters, but that could not diminish all of the good work he had done. At the outset of his contest with Nadal, Del Potro looked in command. He erased a break point against him in the opening game, held on for 1-0 with an ace, and then broke an unsettled Nadal for 2-0. Del Potro bolted to 4-1, and looked entirely capable of eclipsing the world No. 1.

Nadal, however, had other notions. He swept five games in a row to salvage the set, winning 20 of 27 points in the process. He found his range off the ground and returned with extraordinary consistency. In the two service games Del Potro lost, the Argentine put in nine of eleven first serves, but Nadal was the better man from the baseline. At 1-2 in the second set, Nadal trailed 15-40, but two clutch first serves lifted him out of difficulty. Nadal took the first of those points on an errant return, and won the second with a trademark inside-out forehand winner that had been made possible by his excellent delivery. Nadal held on gamely for 2-2. He was succeeding largely with low chipped backhand returns that made Del Potro come forward uncomfortably. The Spaniard implemented one of those chipped returns to set up a dazzling backhand pass down the line. Nadal had the break for 3-2, and never looked back. Serving for the match at 5-4 in the second set, Nadal held at love. His 6-4, 6-4 victory was the product of his ingenuity and steadfastness, but Del Potro demonstrated that he is very close now to what he once was. He entered Indian Wells at No. 90 in the world, and has now leaped to No. 51. By summer he will be at least among the top 20.

Nadal needed every bit of his spunk and fearlessness to get by 32-year-old Ivo Karlovic in the quarters under the lights. The 6’10”, 230 pound Croatian was out for the entire second half of 2010 with an Achilles injury, but he played one of his best matches to nearly upset the Spaniard. At 5-5 in the opening set, Karlovic played an almost unconsciously brilliant return game. He broke Nadal at love with a scorching backhand down the line forcing an error, two inside out forehand winners, and a well executed backhand volley crosscourt that Nadal could not answer. Nadal saved a set point in the following game with a blazing backhand down the line passing shot winner, and earned a break point. Karlovic calmly aced Nadal down the T, and held on to take the set 7-5.

Nadal played an outstanding second set, returning brilliantly in building a 5-0 lead. Karlovic had to save two set points at 0-5 just to salvage a game, but Nadal held at love in the seventh game to make it one set all. Both players held with utter ease in the third set until Karlovic served at 5-5. Nadal got to 15-30 but Karlovic stymied him with two service winners sandwiched by an ace. On they went to the inevitable match concluding tie-break. Nadal was always building leads, but his serve was way out of sync. He missed six of his first seven first serves, and yet he made up for that by returning magnificently.

Nadal angled away a forehand drop volley for 5-2 in the tie-break, but Karlovic closed the gap to 5-4 with an ace and an errant Nadal passing shot. At 5-4, Nadal missed his first serve and Karlovic went for broke with an inside-out forehand return that set up a forehand approach. The big man put away a backhand volley to make it 5-5. Nadal missed another first serve at 5-5, but still won the point to earn a first match point. Karlovic served-and-volleyed his way out of that predicament, but Nadal made a fine return off a first serve and then curled a forehand passing shot down the line for a remarkable winner. Serving at 7-6 with his second match point, Nadal got the first serve in but he left a forehand short, allowing Karlovic to attack. Nadal drove a backhand pass well out of court.

Nadal quickly got himself a third match point, drilling an inside-out forehand winner with no inhibition. Karlovic’s luck had run out as he served at 7-8. Nadal threw in a clever low backhand slice, and Karlovic tried to dig it out. But his forehand approach went wide. Nadal had survived 5-7, 6-1, 7-6 (7). That was a crucial win for the Spaniard. He will come to terms with losing to a front line rival like Djokovic in a Masters 1000 final, but a quarterfinal defeat against Karlovic would have wounded his pride a whole lot more, and left him more vulnerable for the upcoming tournament in Miami.

What can be said about the women at Indian Wells? It was another bright showcase for world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki. She won the tournament with a hard fought, three set triumph over No. 15 seed Marion Bartoli of France. Wozniacki was at her very best in the opening set, opening up the court at will, controlling the rallies with uncanny precision, breaking down Bartoli’s forehand as often as possible.  The stylish Dane made only six unforced errors in the first set, and won it convincingly 6-1 with her exemplary ball control and strategic acumen.

But Bartoli--- reminiscent of Monica Seles in some ways with her two-fisted strokes off both sides that can create astounding angles—altered her strategy in the second set. She added considerable pace to her shots and robbed Wozniacki of any rhythm or time. Bartoli took a 3-0 lead and was masterful in her execution. She won that set 6-2, but the effort seemed to take a lot out of her. In the early stages of the third set, Bartoli could not sustain her high quality standards. Fatigue had set in, and her margin for error was not large enough.

Wozniacki broke serve in the opening game of the final set. At break point, she anticipated a drop volley from Bartoli, scampered forward, and lobbed over the 26-year-old Frenchwoman. Wozniacki had taken the net away, and Bartoli threw up a lob that landed wide. Wozniacki had resumed her command. Wozniacki went ahead 4-1 in the final set as Bartoli double faulted twice in a lost love game. Inexplicably, Wozniacki did not step on the accelerator. She lost the next two games but finished off a 6-1, 2-6, 6-3 victory with some solid if unspectacular play at the end.

In the semifinals, Wozniacki took apart Maria Sharapova 6-1, 6-2. The standard of play was relatively high, and Sharapova competed with her usual deep intensity and purpose. But she simply could not finish off points against a tremendous defender.  In plain and simple terms, the best defensive player in the world of women’s tennis comprehensively broke down one of the sport’s leading big hitters. Sharapova moved from No. 18 to No. 13 in the world by virtue of making it to the penultimate round, but it was discouraging for her admirers see her lose so badly. When Wozniacki beat Sharapova at the U.S. Open last year, the match was played in the windiest possible conditions, but at Indian Wells Sharapova ought to have been able to do more damage under much better circumstances.

In many ways, the women’s event lost life when No. 2 seed Kim Clijsters had to retire in the fourth round against Bartoli. Clijsters had won the first set 6-3 but was down 3-1 in the second when an ailing shoulder forced her to quit. The women can’t seem to get a dose of good fortune these days. No one knows when Serena Williams will be back. Venus Williams has been out since the Australian Open with an injury. Justine Henin is gone, seemingly for good this time. There is too little continuity among the top players. The hope here is that Clijsters will recover quickly, and perhaps she will develop a compelling rivalry with Wozniacki over the next year. But Wozniacki still needs to get on the board at a Grand Slam event to fully prove her authenticity.

Meanwhile, the final weekend of the tournament left many tennis fans perplexed. ABC had the rights to show the men’s semifinals and the women’s final. During the Nadal-Del Potro match, they had to break away from match early in the second set for an announcement from Diane Sawyer at ABC News headquarters about the impending U.S. air strikes in Libya. There was another interruption with Nadal about to serve for the match as President Obama took to the airwaves to explain about American involvement in Libya, and ABC had to leave again. Initially, when ABC suspended their coverage, ESPN Classic took over. At some point, ESPN took over during the Federer-Djokovic match when ABC went to their nightly news programming.

Similar confusion was evident on Sunday during the men’s final. ABC stayed on until it was time for the news, and ESPN stepped in to finish the match. I understand the complexities of the decision making process in television circles, but somehow the fans got shortchanged again by not knowing what was happening. This was not unlike the situation at the U.S. Open last year, when CBS had to leave the air during the men’s final between Djokovic and Nadal, as a rain delay pushed the match deeper into the evening. ESPN took over, but too many observers were clueless about what was transpiring. The view here is that tennis fans deserve a lot more consideration than they are getting from some of the networks.

Be that as it may, the men had an intriguing tournament at Indian Wells, and now we can look forward to a terrific follow up in Miami. Djokovic will sweep into Florida riding the crest of a wave that has carried him close to the top of his talent. Nadal has not won a tournament since Tokyo last October, and he would like nothing more than a triumph in Miami to carry him back out onto the clay, where he will surely reign supreme once more. Federer will be hoping to recover some of his old conviction. And Andy Murray—who bowed out inexplicably to Donald Young at Indian Wells—will be looking to find a way to win his first match since he stopped David Ferrer in the semifinals of the Australian Open.

If Miami even comes close to delivering on its promise this time around, we will have much to celebrate in the fortnight ahead. I look forward to it.

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