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Steve Flink: Djokovic Achieves Another Milestone

5/9/2011 2:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

We are rapidly running out of superlatives to describe the startling evolution and extraordinary remaking of Novak Djokovic in what has been an immaculate 2011 campaign. He simply keeps evolving right before our eyes, raising his game whenever the stakes are highest, picking apart his opponents with absolute self assurance and unwavering professionalism, winning one match after another methodically, admirably, and commandingly. Djokovic has captured 32 consecutive matches during his astounding 2011, the best season starting streak since John McEnroe in 1984. He has secured six championships in the process, including a second career Grand Slam championship at the Australian Open, and three Masters 1000 crowns. He has a combined record of 6-0 against his premier rivals Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer over the course of the year, toppling his two rivals at the top three times apiece. He has been nothing short of stupendous in the way he has conducted himself, the manner of his triumphs, and the character he has displayed every step of the way.

But in my view, Djokovic is worthy of a new level of respect and a deeper admiration after what he did against Nadal in Madrid on Sunday. Here was Djokovic, facing the greatest clay court player the game has yet known in the Spaniard’s home country, walking on court carrying the burden of a 0-9 clay court record against Nadal. The Serbian had been tested severely the previous two days in three set skirmishes with David Ferrer and Thomaz Bellucci. Having not lost a match in all of 2011, he could have been forgiven for losing to a man who had not been beaten on clay since the French Open of 2009. Since that time, Nadal had swept 37 consecutive matches on his favorite surface, including recent tournament victories at both Monte Carlo and Barcelona.

Moreover, Nadal had every possible incentive to bring down Djokovic this time around. Although he had never lost to his rival on the dirt and he still held a commanding 16-9 lead in their career series on all surfaces, Nadal was surely disconcerted about losing to Djokovic in the hard court finals this spring at Indian Wells and Miami, particularly since the Spaniard took the first set in both contests, and was two points away from winning the match in Florida. This was the logical time for Nadal to reassert himself, to remind Djokovic that the “King of Clay” label is not without merit, to keep storming through the clay court circuit with an unblemished record as he sets his sights on a sixth French Open crown at Roland Garros starting in two weeks.

And yet, Nadal could not find a way to stop Djokovic, not even on his native soil. Djokovic outplayed the left-hander across the board to win convincingly 7-5,6 -4. At both Indian Wells and Miami, one of the primary reasons Djokovic prevailed was because his best shot—the two-handed crosscourt backhand— matched up so well with Nadal’s trademark crosscourt forehand. Pitting strength against strength, Djokovic was marginally better on those afternoons. In Madrid, the superiority in these rallies was more pronounced for the Serbian. Djokovic was beating Nadal to the punch from the outset of this match until the end, dictating off both sides, seldom allowing Nadal to move inside the court; the outcome depended largely on Djokovic’s execution, his shot making, his state of mind.

Never before had that been the case in a Djokovic-Nadal clay court clash. To be sure, Djokovic had performed magnificently in his last clay court meeting with the Spaniard on the same court in Madrid two years ago. On that occasion, he battled gallantly for over four hours and had three match points, as Nadal somehow came through in one of his most masterful displays of gumption and perspicacity. He could so easily have lost that encounter, but his willpower took him to a remarkable win.  But Djokovic then was not playing at the lofty level he is at the moment, nor was he anywhere near as strong and unyielding mentally as is the case these days.

In this final, Djokovic found himself in immediate difficulty, down 15-40 on his serve in the opening game of the contest. Had Nadal broken there, the boost might have been considerable, and he might have gathered conviction in a hurry. But Djokovic wiped away the first break point with a scorching forehand down the line winner, and then Nadal missed out on the second when he sent a two-handed  backhand down the line that carried just beyond the baseline. That game was significant, particularly for Djokovic, who proceeded to open up his wings and release his most penetrating brand of tennis. He earned a break point in the second game with a spectacular crosscourt backhand passing shot winner, and broke Nadal with controlled aggression off his forehand, provoking a mistake from a hurried Nadal.

Now up 2-0, Djokovic swiftly took the next two games to make it 4-0, losing only one point in that stretch. He was entirely in the zone, driving the ball relentlessly off both sides, keeping Nadal constantly off balance and trapped behind the baseline. But serving in the fifth game, Djokovic briefly lost his way, double faulting at 15-40 to allow Nadal onto the scoreboard. Nadal promptly held at 15 for 2-4, but Djokovic remained unshakable. On the first point of the seventh game, he won a 27 stroke backcourt exchange from the master of the long rally, and the Serbian went on to hold at love for 5-2. The set seemed certain to belong decisively to Djokovic, but Nadal’s pride surfaced as it so often does in these situations.

The Spaniard fought back gamely, holding at love for 3-5, releasing a devastating forehand inside-in winner, an ace down the T, and two more unstoppable serves to the backhand. When Djokovic served for the set in the ninth game, he bolted to 30-0 with an ace. With a chance to reach triple set point, however, he made a rare tactical error. Having pulled Nadal off the court with a sliced serve wide in the deuce court, he got just the short return he wanted, but rather than go with his familiar inside-out forehand approach, he directed his shot to Nadal’s backhand with neither pace nor depth. Nadal easily passed him off the backhand, and Nadal pounced. He broke back at 30 with a thundering inside-out forehand winner, and was back on serve.

The fact remained that Djokovic was still setting the tempo and keeping Nadal essentially at bay. In a five deuce game with Nadal serving at 4-5, Djokovic thrice reached set point, but an errant forehand return, a forehand pulled wide crosscourt and a two-hander hit wide down the line cost him dearly. Nadal held on for 5-5, winning his third game in a row. The momentum was back on his side of the net, but it quickly disappeared. Djokovic played an excellent game to hold at love for 6-5, including an ace down the T for 40-0. Serving to stay in the set again at 5-6, Nadal was broken at love by a tenacious Djokovic, who got good fortune with two backhand winners off the net cord. Just like that, after losing three games in a row, Djokovic had collected eight consecutive points to close out the set (7-5) on his terms.

Nadal gave himself an adrenaline rush in the opening game of the second set, breaking at love. On the penultimate point of that game, he chased down a lob from Djokovic and hit a between the legs forehand lob winner over a bemused Djokovic, who could only grin at the improbability of that shot. Nadal closed out that game with a forehand down the line winner, and seemed ready to turn the match back in his direction. Yet Djokovic realized he could not afford Nadal to build a lead. With Nadal serving at 30-40 in the second game, the Serbian laced a backhand down the line for a winner to knot the score at 1-1, stunning the Madrid crown back into silence. With Nadal serving at 1-2, he attacked his way out of danger, moving forward behind a forehand swing volley, then making a forehand drop volley winner to save a break point. He held on for 2-2. Both men held to make it 3-3. The standard of play was remarkably high.

At 3-3, 40-30, Djokovic aced Nadal out wide in the Ad Court. Once more, Nadal was under duress, serving at 3-4 with no margin for error. In a deuce game, he held on, driving a forehand crosscourt with added velocity and spin to coax an error from Djokovic. It was 4-4, but Djokovic was not about to buckle. At 40-30 in the ninth game, he drilled a two-hander with uncanny depth, and Nadal missed a running forehand under immense pressure. Now Nadal was serving to stay in the match. Djokovic came in for an easy winner to make it 0-15, then made a brilliant backhand crosscourt return winner for 0-30, and then finished off an absorbing 16 stroke rally with flat backhand winner crosscourt. Nadal saved one match point, but Djokovic underlined his supremacy by capturing the contest on his second match point, prevailing in a 29 stroke rally as a befuddled Nadal sliced a backhand wide down the line.

Of this much I am nearly certain: Djokovic went out on the court against Nadal in Madrid buoyed by his two recent hard court victories over his chief rival, convinced that he was going to win again. He is of the same mindset these days everywhere he goes. One of these afternoons, perhaps even this week in Rome, Djokovic is going to lose a tennis match, but it will take a first rate performance from anyone to stop him. Djokovic is now irrefutably the best tennis player in the world, and his growing self awareness of his potential is striking. Even when he is pushed much harder than expected by an opponent, Djokovic seems to always have the answers.

Brazilian left-hander Thomaz Bellucci was in dazzling form against Djokovic in the semifinals of Madrid, and put himself in a position to take down the game’s dominant performer. Bellucci was long overdue to compete at this level against leading players. He is an inspiring shot maker who builds his game largely around his sizzling forehand, and his first serve is difficult to read.

In Madrid, Bellucci upended Andy Murray 6-4, 6-2 and then ousted Tomas Berdych—arguably a better clay court player than Murray—in another straight set match. It was his best showing ever at a Masters 1000 event, and yet he was not content simply to advance to the penultimate round. He caught Djokovic off guard in their semifinal showdown, and the Serbian needed time to adjust to the explosiveness of his left-handed adversary’s game. Djokovic was frequently on his heels in the baseline rallies as Bellucci kept him guessing with the deceptiveness and depth of his forehand, and a two-handed backhand that help up surprisingly well. Djokovic could not find a hole in Bellucci’s game early on, and he was rendered helpless on the return of serve.

In taking the first set, Bellucci won 20 of 23 points on serve, an astounding feat against the man many consider the finest returner in tennis. Bellucci then went ahead 3-1 in the second set. At 0-1, he held from 0-40, and then he broke at love in the following game as Djokovic failed to put a first serve in play. Bellucci then made it three games in a row when he held in the fourth game. But Djokovic was imperturbable. He held in the fifth game and finally broke the Brazilian to reach 3-3. His defense made all the difference in this crucial stretch; Djokovic refused to miss, and Bellucci lost his range and began over hitting. Djokovic broke again to take the set 6-4, and his demonstrativeness when he won that set told us everything. Bellucci became preoccupied with a groin injury early in the third, but he knew by then that Djokovic had figured him out. Sweeping 11 of the last 13 games, Djokovic got the win 4-6, 6-4, 6-1.

Coming only one day after a taxing skirmish with Ferrer in the quarterfinals, Djokovic had good reason to be proud. From 0-2 down in the first set against the Spaniard, Djokovic was almost letter perfect, taking that set and moving ahead 2-0 in the second set. Djokovic stood inside the baseline directing traffic, maneuvering Ferrer from side to side, controlling the rallies regularly. Typically, the steadfast Ferrer fought back with terrific defense and by adding velocity to his first serve. He took the second set and the two rivals were deadlocked at 2-2 in the third. For just an instant, Djokovic looked vulnerable against one of the sport’s premier clay court players. But he was magnificent down the stretch. In the fifth game of that final set, he got the crucial break by curling a forehand down the line for a winner. Thereafter, Djokovic was unstoppable from the back of the court. He broke again at love in the ninth game to complete a 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 triumph, defeating Ferrer for the first time on clay.

Meanwhile, Nadal took on Federer in the opening semifinal. In their most recent meeting on the slow hard courts of Miami, Nadal had crushed an out of sorts Federer 6-3, 6-2. Federer had given a desultory performance on that occasion, but he did not allow that showing to get in his way this time around. The Swiss knew he was fortunate to make it to the semifinals in Madrid. In his opening assignment against the left-handed, fast charging Feliciano Lopez in the second round, Federer wasted four set points on his serve in the opening set at 5-3. He lost that game and the set was settled in a marathon tie-break, with Federer prevailing 15-13 in that sequence, coming through on his ninth set point. Lopez retaliated to take the second set and then was up 5-2 in the third set tie-break. Federer threw up a high defensive lob off the forehand that landed inside the service line. Lopez let it bounce because it was difficult to sight the ball in the evening lighting. But he should have gone crosscourt, and would have almost certainly won the point had he done so.

Instead, the highly strung Spaniard hit his smash down the line and missed it badly. He could have had four match points at his disposal but instead his lead had shrunk to 5-3. Although the Spaniard had one match point later which Federer erased with an ace, Lopez had missed his golden opportunity. Federer escaped with a 7-6 (13), 6-7 (1), 7-6 (7) victory, advancing his record to 8-0 over his southpaw rival.

In any event, Federer took that reprieve and made something of it, eclipsing Xavier Malisse and Robin Soderling. In his meeting with Nadal, inclement weather forced the closing of the roof, which seemed to benefit Federer. Nonetheless, Nadal was up 4-2 in the opening set. He was also ahead 4-3, 40-30, but Federer surprised him with a deep topspin backhand down the line return that was unmanageable for the Spaniard. Federer was taking a lot of risks with his second serve returns, trying his best to unsettle Nadal, and often succeeding at the end of the first set. Federer broke back for 4-4 with a running forehand down the line winner and an acutely angled backhand crosscourt that lured Nadal into an error on the run.

Federer seemed in sync with the roof closed and no wind or sun to force him out of his rhythm. He went ahead 5-4 on serve, but Nadal held easily for 5-5 and then had 0-40 on Federer’s serve in the following game. Yet Federer swept five straight points for a clutch hold, missing only one first serve in that spree. A tie-break seemed certain, but Federer was on a roll. Nadal had 30-15 at 5-6 on his serve, but Federer released three winners in a row to seal the set, two off the forehand and one with a dazzling backhand pass crosscourt.

The opening game of the second set was critical. Down break point, Federer was convinced that Nadal’s crosscourt forehand had landed wide.  He got that shot back into play but stopped to circle the mark. Umpire Mohamed Lahyani left his chair and came to check the mark, telling Federer that he was pointing to the wrong mark and confirming that in his view Nadal’s shot had hit the line. The television Hawkeye replay showed that Nadal’s shot was indeed on the line. Federer was deeply agitated and kept complaining even after the change of ends, but Lahyani calmed him down by saying, “Once is enough”, meaning enough was enough with the complaints. Federer got the message.

In the following game, Nadal needed to save a break point before advancing to 2-0. Federer had 40-30 in the third game but Nadal still broke him, and then Nadal escaped another break point against him before moving to a 4-0 lead. Every game in this set was hard fought and yet Nadal won nearly every crucial point. Federer did hold from break point down in the fifth game after four deuces, but Nadal saved a break point and got to 5-1 with the hold. Nadal broke easily to close out the set 6-1, but he had worked exceedingly hard to win it.

In the final set, Nadal maintained the upper hand. With Federer serving at 1-2, deuce, Nadal moved in briskly to reach a Federer backhand drop shot, and the Spaniard angled a sliced backhand past his adversary at an astonishingly acute angle. A deep forehand return on the next point was too much for Federer to handle. Nadal had a 3-1 lead, and he lost only one point in his next two service games in reaching 5-2. At 5-3, Nadal served for the match, and Federer had one last burst of inspiration. He earned a break point in that ninth game with a stunning forehand drop shot winner, but could not convert. Nadal kicked a second serve that Federer tried to play aggressively off the backhand. He did not even come close to making that return, and Nadal marched on from there, closing out a 5-7, 6-1, 6-3 victory to raise his record to 16-8 over Federer.

Federer deserves high marks for competing hard and aggressively against Nadal, but the Spaniard had some rough patches off the ground in that match and he seemed apprehensive throughout the match, as if he felt a loss to Federer at this stage of his career on a clay court would be jarring and unacceptable. Nadal tightened up his game over the last two sets and gave Federer more chances to miss, but the evidence was there once more that the Spaniard can’t fully come to terms with the high altitude in Madrid. His ball control was not up to his normal standards, and his two-handed backhand was flying on him more often that he would have liked. After his marathon with Djokovic in the semifinals of Madrid two years ago, Federer stopped him in a straight set final. He won the tournament last year over Federer, but was not at the top of his game.

So this week’s event in Rome will probably be even more significant for Nadal than for Djokovic. Since the Spaniard won his first French Open six years ago in Paris, he has never lost more than one clay court match en route to Roland Garros during the clay court season. The last thing he needs is to lose two weeks in a row as he heads for the French clay. Conversely, a big win in Rome would bolster Nadal and give him all the confidence he needs to hold onto his cherished crown.

As for Djokovic, he is precisely where he wants to be. He has never played a better clay court match in his career than he did against Nadal in Madrid. Djokovic is now striking the ball off both sides better than anyone in his business. His forehand could go wayward in the past when he was overanxious, and high balls off that side seemed to bother him inordinately at times. Now the forehand is more solid than ever, and he is covering it with just enough topspin for control while still hitting winners effortlessly with immense pace and accuracy. Meanwhile, his serve is more reliable than ever. The fluidity is back, and he is precise and purposeful on his delivery. He is winning a good many free points on serve, and backing it up outstandingly.

With his big win over Nadal in Madrid, Djokovic has demonstrated that he can produce devastatingly potent tennis at any time, on any surface, against any opponent. He wins in different ways, does whatever it takes to break down adversaries, and adjusts his game beautifully to fit the moment. Moreover, his much calmer disposition has allowed him to think more clearly and compete with sureness on big points. He was always a great tennis player, but now Djokovic is an estimable and much improved match player.

And yet, in my judgment Nadal remains the clear favorite in Paris. Beating him in a best of five set match at Roland Garros is a monumental task. This loss to Djokovic will sting, and it will only make Nadal that much more determined to get back to the top of his clay court game. Yet the 2011 version of Novak Djokovic is the sport’s unassailable pace setter. The hope here is that the Serbian and the Spaniard will keep meeting over and over again this year. Nadal has forced Djokovic to elevate his game, and now it is up to Nadal to respond to the growing authority of Djokovic. That will be no simple task, but Nadal is as resilient, courageous and flexible a competitor as the game has yet known.

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