I remember when Rafael Nadal was desperately trying to catch up to the pacesetter on the ATP Tour, working to expand beyond his clay-court empire and get within striking distance of the top. And I recall when Roger Federer was likewise engaged, hoping to unseat seemingly perpetual No. 1 Pete Sampras.
But I can't remember a time when Nadal and Federer were both eating the dust of a player who, if not more highly ranked, was certainly playing better and more consistently over an extended period.
Of course, I mean Novak Djokovic, who just may turn in a perfect score in the first (or Australian Open) quarter of the tennis year. Djokovic hasn't lost a match this year. In fact, he hasn't lost one since November, and it was pretty apparent that he lost that partly because he was preoccupied, looking ahead a few weeks to what would be Serbia's first taste of ultimate Davis Cup glory.
You have to go pretty far back to find a guy who rolled through the first three months of the year undefeated, although the number of events a player chooses to enter certainly has a bearing on that. Among the past five men to win the first major of the year (Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Marat Safin and Andre Agassi, which takes us back nine years to 2003), only Djokovic has gone into Miami, the last event of the early hard-court segment, with a chance to run the table and finish the segment at 24-0 (he's currently 18-0).
But this isn't just an opportunity for Djokovic, it's also a great chance for Nadal or Federer to play an unfamiliar role for men of their status -- that of the spoiler. Strange as it seems to think of them in that light, it's about the best either man could do to salvage his early season. Federer has already lost to Djokovic three times this year (although he still has a superior 13-9 head-to-head record). Rafa Nadal is 2-4 in his past six matches with Djokovic, including Sunday's Indian Wells final, and has yet to win a tournament this year (Djokovic has played and won three).
Even if such august personages as Federer and Nadal relish the role of the spoiler, it's going to take more than willingness to beat Djokovic. He's shown this year that Federer just can't hit through him anymore; Djokovic's groundstrokes are too heavy, his court coverage too good, and he changes the direction of the ball and moves from defense to offense too expertly.
Nadal is better-equipped to handle Djokovic off the ground, but the very serve that pulled the No. 1 player through the U.S. Open final against Djokovic hasn't been seen much this year. An excellent returner, Djokovic can neutralize and pressure Nadal -- in essence, set him back on his heels and keep him off balance with a combination of great defense and quick-strike offense.
On top of that, Djokovic has always had a cocky streak, and now that has morphed into formidable level of confidence. The main question in my mind is whether Djokovic is fully focused on completing this transcontinental double. Only five players have won Indian Wells and Miami back-to-back: Michael Chang, Pete Sampras, Agassi, Rios and Federer (who did it twice, in 2005 and 2006).
After Indian Wells ended Sunday, Djokovic flew to Colombia to play an exhibition with Nadal, and then he threw the weight of his name and presence behind a worthwhile cause, the charity soccer match and dinner to raise money for Japan in the wake of the recent earthquake tragedy. Djokovic can be distracted, we've seen that in the past. And with three titles under his belt and the European clay-court circuit looming, he might be tempted to take his foot off the gas.
And I have a feeling Federer and Nadal would me more than happy to help him remove it.