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Thursday, May 24, 2012
Updated: May 25, 8:32 AM ET
How Nadal turned the rivalry around

By Kamakshi Tandon
ESPN.com

What a difference a year makes. Heading into the French Open, it's advantage Rafael Nadal. So how did the Spaniard begin to win his matches against Novak Djokovic?

What do you do when you've lost seven finals in a row to the same player?

"You cannot expect to be perfect all the time; you cannot expect the opponent to be not good, not perfect all the time, too," Nadal said. "So you have to wait.

"You have to accept that the normal thing is [to] lose, because only one wins the tournament, and be patient to work for your moment. I think I accepted well the losses, I worked to keep being competitive."

And, he added, "I am competitive today."

He had just finished recording his second straight victory over Djokovic by winning the final of the BNL d'Italia International in Rome, confirmation that his win at the Rolex Monte Carlo Masters had not been simply a one-off and that he was indeed turning the tide after those seven straight losses to the Serb.

Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic
Rafael Nadal made a concerted decision to play more aggressively against Novak Djokovic.

There were two aspects to the approach Nadal describes. One was simply to wait, knowing that Djokovic could not sustain the kind of form he was in during the first half of 2011, when it often seemed like no matter how daring the shot, he simply couldn't miss. The 41 unforced errors Djokovic committed in the Rome final last week were ample illustration. Even though the world No. 1 continues to play at a very high level, the margins at the top are so small that even a slight drop can turn the direction of a matchup. Nadal experienced the same thing last year. That's also why he knew that he couldn't just sit back and hope he would regain the edge after Djokovic fell off the wave of confidence and energy he was riding last year. Secondly, the Spaniard knew he also had to work to improve his own game, which had become a little predictable and passive as his confidence ebbed.

"I want to congratulate him, but for me the challenge is not different," Nadal said in Cincinnati last summer, a few weeks after losing his Wimbledon title to Djokovic and admitting he was struggling mentally against the Serb.

"I have a goal right now, and that's improve my tennis to be enough good to compete against him for next year. For this year, I don't have enough time to practice, but hopefully for next year, yes. I have to change and improve a few things, and that's what I going to try."

So after the Davis Cup final last December, Nadal and his uncle and coach, Toni, went to work. "To be more aggressive, first, and try to go in front, more attack, and go inside the court," Toni Nadal told ESPN.com after Nadal's win in Rome. "I think last year Djokovic played really good all the season; it was very difficult to play against him. He beat Rafael seven times because he was better. [We] know what we should do something different; we should be more aggressive to play a little better."

The most noticeable change has been in Nadal's variety on the forehand, particularly his greater use of the forehand down the line, which has disrupted some of Djokovic's established patterns and perhaps contributed to a few of those unforced errors when facing Nadal.

He also feels he is getting more power on the shot. "My forehand is being more painful than last year; that's my feeling," Nadal said. "It is going faster than last year. That's why I am able to go a little bit more from inside. Last year I tried, but the shot wasn't enough good. This year the shot is the right one."

Though not happy with his serving in the Rome final, Nadal also has been more effective with his delivery after losing sting on it during part of last year. "His serve is so much better," Toni Nadal said, but he adds that there is some mystery to the shot. "We have always had problem with the serve and sometimes you [find] a good feeling on the serve and sometimes not."

Unlike last year, Nadal is arriving at the French Open happy with his form after winning Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome without dropping a set, and his only loss in between was at the Mutua Open in Madrid on blue clay, which Nadal, Djokovic and others decried as too slippery.

"The clay-court season have been perfect for me," Nadal said. With a quirk of his brow, he added, "Only the mistake of Madrid -- in my opinion wasn't clay."

Although he's a player with a tendency to be self-critical, he struggled only in his opening-round performance in Rome's windy conditions. "When conditions were right, I am happy the way played," Nadal said. "I am more than happy the way my mentality, my concentration, worked during those weeks."

At the French Open, Nadal will be attempting to win his seventh title and break the record he shares with Bjorn Borg. Djokovic also has a lot on the line. He will be trying to win his first French Open and get the "Novak Slam" by taking all four majors in a row. With Nadal's win in Rome having given him back the No. 2 ranking, they can only meet in the final. If they do, it will be Djokovic's turn to respond to the renewed challenge issued by Nadal, who has won both their meetings on clay this season and lost only once in Paris.

The rivalry is finely poised once again.