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Steve Flink: Djokovic Can't Be Beat

4/4/2011 1:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

No one in the game of tennis is absolutely invincible. As all great players realize, defeat can always stand around the corner from victory; failure is often a thin line away from success. Great players can, however, find a level of conviction at times that makes them just about unstoppable. They believe that they are going to win every time they step on the court. They have that unshakable inner feeling that winning is the only option for them. They relish the chance to underline their supremacy when the stakes are highest, with a title on the line, a chief rival standing at the opposite end of the court, and the outcome of a match hanging precariously in the balance.

And so it was for Novak Djokovic as he confronted Rafael Nadal in the championship match at the Sony Ericsson Open on the hard courts of Miami. Djokovic was going for his 26th consecutive match victory (and his 24th straight of 2011), chasing a fourth tournament title in a row, attempting to remain unbeaten for the entire 2011 campaign. He was looking to topple the great Nadal in a second straight final after losing to the Spaniard the first five times they clashed in title round matches. He was hoping to succeed once more when a loss to the current world No. 1 would have been justifiable. He was playing to win without being afraid to lose. In the end, Djokovic dealt Nadal one of the roughest defeat’s of the left hander’s career, striking back boldly with striking self assurance when he was twice two points from losing late in the third set. Djokovic bested Nadal 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4) with one of his finest displays ever of poise under pressure. Strangely, Nadal looked like the player who feared that he would fall.

At the outset, both players were having difficulty finding their range on a scorching afternoon that seemingly favored Nadal, the sport’s confirmed ultimate warrior. Both men had good reason to be optimistic about their chances. Djokovic had held serve 40 consecutive times in his previous five triumphs, and had not yet been broken. Nadal had been nearly as impressive, winning 47 of his 48 service games. And yet, because neither competitor had faced an opponent who could return at their level, there were a cluster of breaks in the opening set as Nadal and Djokovic tried to get their games and emotions under control.

Nadal was the first to make inroads. He broke Djokovic for 2-1 in the first set, drawing his adversary forward with a chipped backhand return, then releasing a terrific backhand pass up the line for a winner. Yet Nadal had to work remarkably hard to hold on in the fourth game, fighting off three break points with typical resolve and purpose. At 1-3, Djokovic played his loosest game of the entire contest, missing four of five first serves, losing his serve for the second time in a row with a pair of unprovoked forehand mistakes in a row. To his credit, Djokovic would not lose his serve again the rest of the match, but at that juncture he was unsettled, flat, devoid of his usual intensity.

Yet Nadal was tight. At 4-1, he saved a break point and reached game point, but Djokovic stymied him there by driving a forehand winner down the line to conclude a 16 stroke exchange. Nadal still managed to hold on for 5-1 with an unanswerable first serve wide in the Ad court. Djokovic composed himself admirably, holding at love in the seventh game. Nonetheless, Nadal served for the set at 5-2, and an ace took him to 30-15. Then he needlessly rolled a backhand wide down the line, and followed with another unforced error off the backhand. Djokovic then swung freely at a two-handed backhand that left Nadal helpless on the forehand. Djokovic had the break for 3-5, and he managed to hold on to win his third game in a row.

Nadal was uneasy as he served for the set again at 5-4, going down 15-30. But—boosted by three straight first serves—he got the hold to take the set 6-4. And yet, he had made a relatively easy set become much too complicated.

There can be little doubt that Nadal’s difficulty in closing out that set had a considerable bearing on what occurred in the second set. Serving at 0-1, the Spaniard had a 40-30 lead but missed badly off his two-hander, and Djokovic made him pay dearly for that unnecessary error. The Serbian broke to establish a 2-0 lead. At deuce in the third game, Djokovic lost his composure after missing a relatively easy shot to hand Nadal a break point. He smashed his racket on the court, but then took his time before serving the next point, recovering the calmer demeanor that has carried him to so many wins this year. Djokovic sent a first serve to Nadal’s forehand, and the return was long. Djokovic held on for 3-0, and rolled to 4-1. Nadal seemed subdued and even confused about how to proceed. In the sixth game, he was down break point three times, but he held on, connecting with five first serves in a row on his way to 2-4.

Djokovic wasn’t rattled in the least. Serving for the second set at 5-3, he held at love with a 125 MPH ace out wide in the Ad court. He had seized utter control of that set, and Nadal was having even more trouble dealing with Djokovic’s second serve than he was in countering the first delivery. For the match, Djokovic would win 67% of his first serve points (an unexceptional number), but he took 29 of 41 second serve points (for an extraordinary success rate of 71%). In any event, Nadal had the advantage of serving first in the final set. He was in immediate danger at 0-30 in the opening game, but his determination was evident as he won that critical game after two deuces.

Nadal trailed 15-30 at 1-1, but a clutch 122 MPH ace down the T took him back to 30-30, and he moved swiftly to 2-1 from there. With Djokovic serving in the fourth game, Nadal had a good opening. Djokovic was down 0-30 when he came to the net and played a dangerous sidespin, inside out forehand drop volley. His risky shot landed safely on the sideline, and Nadal had no play. Djokovic held for 2-2, and then had Nadal down 0-30 in the fifth game. Nadal responded with one of his best forehands of the day, curling a forehand down the line for a dazzling winner. He held at 30 to reach 3-2. Now both players protected their serves ably and confidently. At 4-4, Nadal served his fifth double fault of the match to make it 30-30, but he took the next two points for a 5-4 lead before Djokovic held easily for 5-5.

Despite being debilitated as they played on ferociously and uncompromisingly under a draining Florida sun, both players were performing at a high level through this tense stretch of the contest. Nadal—benefitting from an ace at 30-0—held at love for 6-5, and then gave his all to break down Djokovic. The Serbian was serving at 5-6 when Nadal unleashed a startling backhand crosscourt winner for 15-30. Djokovic hit a 124 MPH serve down the T, and Nadal’s sliced backhand return went wide. At 30-30, Djokovic hit one ball that seemed certain to carry over the baseline, but the shot stayed in. Then he produced a stunning crosscourt forehand at an unimaginably sharp angle, and Nadal missed a backhand slice long. A frustrated Nadal then miss-hit a backhand completely and it was 6-6. Twice the steadfastness of Djokovic had saved him when he could have faced match points. That was a brave stand.

In the final set tie-break, history seemed largely on Nadal’s side. He had taken five of six tie-breaks against Djokovic in their 24 match career series, which the Spaniard led 16-8. Moreover, he had never lost a final to Djokovic until their most recent encounter at Indian Wells, so a tight corner like this seemed like a good place for Nadal to be. Or was it? Nadal opened the tie-break with an inside-out forehand long, but then won the next two points on Djokovic’s serve, moving ahead 2-1 with a gusty flat backhand crosscourt that was too hot for Djokovic to handle.

Here was Nadal, serving at 2-1 in the tie-break, perhaps ready to seize control and run out the match in style. Not so fast. Djokovic hit Nadal with a brilliant barrage of penetrating forehands until the Spaniard could defend himself no longer. It was 2-2. A shaken Nadal double faulted for the sixth time in the match to fall behind 3-2. That was a fatal blow, and a sign that he was unusually vulnerable at a crucial moment in a long and arduous struggle. Djokovic unloaded a big first serve that set up a strong approach shot that Nadal could not handle.

The players changed ends of the court with Djokovic now in front 4-2 and he went to 5-2 as Nadal made another uncharacteristic error, rolling a backhand return of a second serve wide down the line. Djokovic then hit a forehand winner down the line for 6-2, but Nadal isn’t Nadal by chance. The Spaniard saved one match point with a well directed first serve to the backhand, and wiped away another when he cracked a trademark forehand that gave him a short ball. He came forward for a forehand volley winner, and suddenly it was 6-4. If Djokovic did not close it out here on his serve, he might have found himself in a bind. But he served wide to the backhand, got the short return he wanted, and whipped a forehand winner into the clear. After three hours and twenty one minutes, Djokovic had maintained his unblemished record for 2011 with as gritty a victory as he has ever recorded. To beat Nadal in a match so long and taxing was a phenomenal feat.

And so Djokovic heads unbeaten into the clay court circuit, having made the best start to a year of any male player since Ivan Lendl opened 1986 with 25 straight match victories. But Lendl’s streak did not include a Grand Slam event. John McEnroe collected an astonishing 39 consecutive match wins in 1984, losing his first match of the year to Lendl in the French Open final despite holding a two sets to love lead in the final. So Djokovic has reached some lofty territory as he keeps daring anyone and everyone to beat him.

Be that as it may, there were other intriguing storylines in Miami. No semifinal in many years has been as eagerly anticipated as the Nadal-Federer clash under the lights on April Fool’s Day. It was their first meeting in the United States since Federer recouped from two sets to love down and 1-4 in the third to halt Nadal in the 2005 Miami final. Moreover, Federer trailed 3-5 in the third set tie-break and was thrice two points from defeat on that occasion before he fashioned a five set victory over the pugnacious Spaniard. Since that match six years ago in Miami, Nadal and Federer had collided no fewer than 20 more times in their storied head-to-head series, and all but three of those showdowns were finals. Not since the end of 2007 at the Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai had they done battle before the final round.

Yet there they were last Friday evening, going at it in their first appointment of 2011, extending their rivalry into an eighth year. Although the slow hard court conditions were surely more to Nadal’s liking, the setting remained essentially neutral for both players. In his heyday back in 2005 and 2006, Federer was a popular champion in Miami, and he played some outstanding tennis there. He has not been back to the final since, but he knows the surroundings well, and is always dangerous at any hard court event. Both players had ample incentive to prevail in their latest skirmish; Federer would have liked a fourth crack at Djokovic after three bruising losses over the course of the season, and Nadal wanted to keep his bid alive for a first tournament triumph of 2011.

From the outset, however, it was apparent that Nadal was decidedly more comfortable than Federer. Nadal had been toughened by a hard fought, 6-2, 3-6,6 -3 win over Tomas Berdych in the quarterfinals, when he had been pushed to 3-3 in the final set before pulling away. Federer had been up 3-0 in the first set against Gilles Simon in his quarterfinal when the Frenchman had retired with a neck ailment. In the previous round, Federer had demolished Olivier Rochus 6-3, 6-1. Perhaps Federer needed more sharpening before he took on Nadal, although that might not have made much difference. In any case, the Spaniard was timing the ball impeccably this time against Federer, keeping his shots unfailingly deep off both sides, serving with precision and consistency, giving nothing away.

Federer, meanwhile, was out of sorts, unable to step into the court and drill inside-out forehands with enough frequency to control his own destiny. He was at a loss to prevent Nadal from extending the rallies and dictating the tempo. Nadal was setting the agenda almost entirely, and it was strikingly apparent why he had won 14 of 22 previous clashes with the Swiss. Nadal served the vast majority of time to Federer’s backhand in both the deuce and Ad courts, garnering a lion’s share of points with that tactic, or gaining quick control of rallies as Federer’s returns landed too short. Most important of all, Nadal kept sending his heavy topspin forehand crosscourt deep to Federer’s backhand. With Nadal’s shots bounding up high, Federer as always missed frequently with that arduous shoulder high backhand.

On top of that, Federer had the added burden of getting very little benefit from his serve. Nadal wisely moved over slightly and anticipated Federer’s wide slice serve in the deuce court, the same serve that Federer has used so skillfully on a much lower bouncing court in London at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals when they last competed against each other. On that occasion, Federer won 92% of his first serve points, but this time he prevailed on only 57% of his first serve points. In Miami, Nadal regularly found a way to get that backhand return back into play and got the depth he needed to prevent Federer from gaining the upper hand in the rally. All in all, Nadal was simply too crisp, cunning and unerring for Federer to have a serious chance to win. Nadal was very close to the zenith of his game, while Federer played reasonably well in the first set but deteriorated significantly in the second.

Federer actually came out of the blocks with confidence and purpose. He connected with all five first serves in the opening game of the match, winning the first point with an ace down the T, closing out that game commandingly at 15 with an immaculate serve-and-volley combination, sending his delivery wide to the backhand of Nadal, then moving in swiftly to deposit a backhand first volley behind Nadal for a winner. Federer had the quick 1-0 lead, but Nadal answered by making four first serves in a row, holding at love with a forehand inside-out winner. At 1-1, Federer made good on only two of five first serves, a costly development. Nadal broke him at 15 as the Swiss started pressing off the ground, making two mistakes off the forehand and a pair off the backhand.

Nadal was up a break at 2-1, and he was unswerving. Missing only one of five first serves, he held at 15 for 3-1, flicking another forehand winner into a vacant corner off an inside-out forehand from Federer. Federer held in a deuce game for 2-3, but Nadal retaliated with a love hold for 4-2. In the seventh game, Federer held with relative ease at 15, but Nadal was immovable. He held at 15 for 5-3 without missing a first serve, stifling Federer with two service winners to the backhand in that game. Nadal had won 16 of 18 points on serve in the set, missing only three first serves. Federer was understandably apprehensive under the circumstances. Serving at 3-5, 30-30, he totally miss-hit a forehand out of court and then followed with another errant shot off that side. Set to Nadal, 6-3.

Federer had a ray of hope at the start of the second set, earning his one and only break point of the match. He forced Nadal to retreat to the baseline by putting up a deep lob. Nadal played his bounce smash down the middle of the court, but his overhead clipped the net cord and gave a lunging Federer no chance to get the ball back into play. Nadal held on with another strategically placed wide slice serve eliciting a backhand return long from Federer. With Federer serving at 30-30 in the second game, Nadal hit a couple of low passing shots that kept Federer off balance at the net. On his third pass attempt, Nadal rolled a backhand down the line just inside the sideline for a winner. Federer then netted a forehand off Nadal’s solid return of serve, and just like that it was 2-0 for the Spaniard, who promptly held at love for 3-0.

Federer was plainly distressed. At 0-3 he double faulted on the opening point and Nadal passed him off the forehand to make it 0-30. A 6-0 set for Nadal seemed well within the realm of possibility. But Federer took that game after three deuces, saving a break point in the process. Then he had a small opportunity. Nadal was down 0-30 at 3-1 after making consecutive unforced errors off the forehand, suffering his only real lapse of the evening. But two unstoppable serves to the backhand lifted Nadal back to 30-30, and then the Spaniard scampered forward to dig out a low stab volley from Federer. Nadal got down low, kept his head still, and rolled an exquisitely angled two-handed pass crosscourt for a winner. Nadal marched to 4-1 before Federer held one last time in the sixth game. Nadal held easily for 5-2, and broke a disheveled Federer to complete a 6-3, 6-2 victory. It was the single most decisive hard court win he has ever achieved against Federer. Nadal made only 10 unforced errors while Federer had 38.

What must have been alarming to Federer was this: he put in 60% of his first serves, yet still won only 57% of those points, an inordinately low number for him. Nadal connected with 76% of his first serves, and won 82% of those points. On second serve points won, Nadal was at 64% while Federer was down at 48%. Nadal won 47% of his total return points while Federer was able to win only 22% of his points on the receiving end. Nadal thus extended his lead in the rivalry to 15-8, beating Federer to the punch across the board. Federer clearly has some tough work ahead on the clay court circuit, where it will not be easy for him to turn his season and outlook around. He has not won Indian Wells or Miami since 2006, when he captured both events in back to back years. The feeling grows that Federer is at a serious crossroads. He remains a formidable contender at the majors, but he will be hard pressed to win a Grand Slam event in 2011.

Djokovic swept into Miami with the same utter assurance and self control that he had displayed at Indian Wells. In five matches en route to his title round duel with Nadal, Djokovic conceded only 18 games in ten sets, and was never stretched beyond 6-4. That was no mean feat, not by any stretch of the imagination. In the semifinals, he ousted an in form and dangerous Mardy Fish, the 29-year-old American who has now taken over from Andy Roddick as the top ranked American in the world of tennis with his exploits. Fish recorded a pair of impressive victories to earn his appointment with Djokovic, defeating the rapidly reemerging Juan Martin Del Potro 7-5, 7-6 (5) in the round of 16 and then clipping an irritable David Ferrer 7-5, 6-1 in the quarters.

Fish was as crafty and resourceful from the baseline as I have ever seen him. Del Potro hit the American with some heavy blows from the back of the court, cracking his devastatingly potent forehand deep into the corners, driving his two-handed backhand with excellent pace and depth. But Fish outplayed the 2009 U.S. Open champion with remarkable defense and some timely attacking. Against Ferrer, he pulled away after a tight first set as the Spaniard lost most of his customary will to compete unrelentingly.

Fish played an impressive first set against Djokovic in the penultimate round, but was not fully rewarded for his considerable effort. Djokovic was admirably tough whenever he was down break point, as was the case all week leading up to his final with Nadal. He saved a total of 13 break points on his five victories leading up to the final, including four against Fish. A match that could conceivably have been close turned into a comfortable 6-3, 6-1 success for the world No. 2. Djokovic saved one break point at 1-2 in the first set with a service winner. When he served for that set at 5-3, Djokovic was down 15-40, and he saved two more break points there. Later, when he was rolling at 4-1 in the second set, Djokovic cast aside another break point against him. He was a pillar of strength and calmness when it counted.

While the men were front and center in Miami, the women had a very good tournament as well. In the end, Victoria Azarenka captured her first singles title of 2011 with a 6-1, 6-4 victory over Maria Sharapova, eclipsing the three time Grand Slam tournament singles champion with a first rate performance. Azarenka asserted her superiority by returning with more authority and precision than her illustrious adversary. Her second serve returns were decidedly more consistent throughout the match. The key to the outcome was Sharapova’s inability to hold serve. In nine service games across two sets, she held precisely once. That she even made a match of it was a testament to her fortitude and unflagging spirit. She could easily have lost 6-1, 6-0, but Sharapova is a singularly ferocious competitor, the best in the women’s game with the exception of Serena Williams.

Sharapova was up 40-15 in the opening game, which she lost after five deuces. The tone had been set. Sharapova managed to break back for 1-1 with some searing returns of her own, but she did not win another game for the rest of the set. Azarenka was quicker and more efficient from the baseline, and was using sharp angles to open up the court for outright winners, exposing Sharapova’s relative lack of mobility. Azarenka took the last five games of the first set and the first four of the second set. She had won nine games in a row, and was poised to make the final round contest a rout. But the Russian was typically prideful and unwavering.

With Azarenka at game point for 5-0 in the second set, Sharapova unleashed a scintillating forehand drive volley winner from deep in the court. She broke back for 1-4, held for 2-4, and took a third game in a row to close the gap even more. Serving at 3-4, 30-40, Sharapova double faulted, and that gave Azarenka a chance to close out the match on serve. Azarenka had two match points in that 5-3 game but the boldness of Sharapova kept the Russian in the match. A well struck forehand inside out from Sharapova forced an error from Azarenka on the first match point, and Sharapova erased the second with a magnificent forehand return winner. Azarenka double faulted at break point down, and Sharapova was back to 4-5, serving to deadlock the set.

Sharapova made it to 30-30 but hesitated on a short ball and failed to put it away, leaving the court open for Azarenka to drive a backhand down the line into a wide open space. Azarenka was at match point for the third time, and her return down the middle provoked a forehand mistake from Sharapova. Sharapova hit some sparkling winners but her 44 unforced errors were damaging. Azarenka made only 18 unforced errors, but was aggressive when she needed to be. Azarenka will move to No. 6 in the world this week while Sharapova has reestablished herself again among the top ten in the world, deservedly so.

Meanwhile, the top two seeds did not fare well. Azarenka survived three consecutive three set matches and then accounted for Clijsters 6-3, 6-3. Clijsters had been living dangerously. She had ousted Ana Ivanovic in one of the great comebacks of her career, rescuing herself from 1-5, 0-40 down in the final set, and saving five match points to win 7-6 (4), 3-6, 7-6 (5). Then the Belgian was blown away by Azarenka. As for the top seed Caroline Wozniacki, she bowed out in a three set, fourth round match against the zany Andrea Petkovic, the No. 13 seed who lost to Sharapova in the semifinals. So the women held up their end of the bargain this time around, even if the men outshined them again.

Be that as it may, Djokovic did it again, coming through with grit, gumption and style. His ground game was more solid and penetrating than Nadal’s, and he was the better player in every respect. Nadal clearly was unsure how to impose himself from the backcourt against the commanding Djokovic. Unless he got extraordinary depth with his crosscourt forehand, Djokovic stepped in and cracked his two-hander flat, doing considerable damage with that stroke. Strength to strength, Djokovic was marginally superior. His two-hander on the day was sturdier and stronger than Nadal’s forehand.

Moreover, Djokovic stifled Nadal largely with the depth and kick on his second serve, and did not serve a single double fault in the entire match. Nadal served six double faults, a problem brought about in part by the ever present threat and aggression of the Serbian’s flatter returns.

So what happens from here? Nadal will undoubtedly reassert himself on the clay. He will go back to Monte Carlo in search of a seventh title in a row. He will surely be the dominant performer on that surface as long as he is healthy, and the long range forecast here is that Nadal wins a sixth French Open crown. But know this: Djokovic is not only the sport’s premier hard court player, but he is in my judgment the second best clay court player in the world. He will have an outstanding clay court season of his own, and his chances of toppling Nadal on that surface at least once are better than anyone else’s. Djokovic will surely see his winning streak end at some point, probably in Monte Carlo. But he has a lot more winning left to do in 2011. Even when he is struggling, Djokovic wins a lot of tennis matches.

With one Grand Slam championship, two Masters 1000 crowns and another tournament win at Dubai in his 2011 collection already, Djokovic will inevitably garner the No. 1 world ranking. Nadal believes Djokovic may get there in the next couple of months. In turn, Djokovic has done so much already that Nadal will need to not only dominate on the clay en route to Roland Garros, but defend his crown in Paris and probably defend at Wimbledon as well to give himself a good chance to fend off Djokovic for the all important year end No. 1 ranking.

No matter what the rankings say right now, Novak Djokovic is clearly the best tennis player in the world, and I am convinced that he will live up to that billing by winning at least one more major this season. I am just as certain that Nadal will soon rekindle his winning ways and his rivalry with Djokovic will be the talk of the tennis world all year long.

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