Sunday, May 15, 2011
Believe in the man behind the streak
By Ravi Ubha
When Novak Djokovic rallied from a set down to beat Rafael Nadal in Masters Series finals in Indian Wells and Miami, his naysayers could be heard saying something to the effect of, "Well, Nadal was just coming back from an injury. Wait 'til they get on clay."
When Djokovic topped Nadal in straight sets on his home turf in Madrid last week for a first victory in 10 attempts on dirt against the, for now, world No. 1, they were probably pointing to the conditions in the Spanish capital. After all, Roger Federer suggested the surface played faster than a hard court, where Djokovic enjoys a winning record against Nadal.
No one can have any excuses after Sunday's final of the Rome Masters, when Djokovic overcame Nadal for the fourth straight time to extend his winning streak in 2011 to 37 matches. The score, 6-4, 6-4, didn't do Djokovic justice. He dominated Nadal and is playing like the real No. 1 at the moment.
Barring a minor miracle, given his form, he's sure to pass John McEnroe's record of 42 straight wins to start a campaign, in 1984, at the French Open.
Djokovic was supposed to be tired, and Nadal is precisely the wrong player to face in that predicament. The Serb toiled for three hours Saturday -- evening -- in a pulsating slugfest, Andy Murray his victim. Toward the end of the affair, he was busy stretching his legs, fatigued not only from the match itself but probably the previous 4½ months.
If Nadal himself couldn't recover from a bruising marathon against Murray at November's year-end championships in London, losing the next day to Federer, how could Djokovic, considered less of a physical specimen, rebound?
And Rome's slower conditions were meant to aid Nadal, a five-time champion at the Foro Italico. Playing in the evening and in a light drizzle at stages, the court slowed further.
But Djokovic could do no wrong. His health issues appear to be a thing of the past after being recently diagnosed with a gluten allergy. The diet is now right. Only for a brief spell early in the first set did Djokovic look vulnerable, his balls landing short.
In Madrid, Djokovic pummeled Nadal with his cross-court backhand. He did the same in Rome.
Nadal changed tactics in at least one way from Madrid, throwing up looping backhands in the middle of the court to try to disrupt Djokovic's rhythm. It didn't work. Djokovic, on most occasions, either crushed an inside-out forehand or that cross-court backhand.
While Nadal was standing behind the baseline, Djokovic was hugging it, happy to be the aggressor. Throughout, Djokovic had success on the deuce court serving to the Nadal backhand. In much the same way Nadal picks on Federer's one-handed backhand with his heavy forehand, Djokovic's cross-court flat forehand to Nadal's backhand had the latter in continuous difficulty. As in Madrid, Nadal's forehand to the Djokovic backhand was ineffective.
Not seen on a clay court prior to this season, Nadal looked entirely puzzled, unsure of how to string together points against Djokovic.
In short, Djokovic had all the answers.
Now Djokovic has one more item to take care of -- beating Nadal over five sets at the French Open, indeed a different animal.
The naysayers, though, must be lessening.
London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter.