- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- On the final point, they both came to the net and studied each other intently, face-to-face.
The two finest players in the sport were fascinatingly close, and they were still swinging with fury. No. 1-ranked Rafael Nadal ripped one last volley, but No. 2 Novak Djokovic got a racket on it and managed to drop it into the open court. Seconds later, he was flat on his back, arms and legs outstretched.
Of the past 17 Grand Slam singles events, they have come away with a combined 12 titles. Perhaps even more remarkable, after Djokovic's emphatic and forceful 6-3, 6-3 victory over Nadal on Sunday, they are the reigning champions of all nine ATP Masters 1000 events. From March to November, Indian Wells to Paris, they are the standard, the only standard.
"I didn't have any letdowns throughout the whole match," Djokovic said. "I was in a very high level: serve, backhand, cross-court, forehand. I mean, I have done everything right, and I'm thrilled with my performance."
Djokovic, 26, is now a four-time Miami champion. This event remains one of the few (along with the ATP year-ender in London) missing from Rafa's glittering résumé. Djokovic has won 10 straight matches and 20 straight in Masters competition. Like Serena Williams, Djokovic is comfortable on this court, where he has won 18 of his last 19 matches.
This was their 40th meeting, a staggering number that has no precedent; the previous Open era record belonged to Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe, who tangled 36 times. This may have been the most complete victory by either man. It was over in 84 minutes. The crowd and even both players seemed vaguely stunned by the swiftness of the result.
Nadal still holds a 22-18 edge, but Djokovic has won three straight matches and is the one now riding a hot streak. After losing the 2013 US Open final last year to Nadal, Djokovic won the next two, in Beijing and London. The give-and-take between them seems to elevate their games, and it's Djokovic's turn to run off and hide.
"First few games, I was there," Nadal said afterward. "I had the break point, and I played a few games and a few points with right way, with right intensity. But for the rest, easy to analyze. The opponent was better than me. That's it.
"So just congratulate him. I'm going to keep working hard to try to be at very high level for next time."
This was the first match for Nadal here in broad daylight, which might have been a factor in the early going. Djokovic, meanwhile, had played all day matches coming in.
Usually, when they reach the finish line, they are already nearly spent. Yet they often manage to summon something special. Remember the 2012 Australian Open final, when they could barely stand when it was over? But the double walkovers on Friday gave them a rare two days off -- and that was a win for aficionados of tennis, who got the privilege of seeing these two at their physical best.
On this day, particularly in the first set, Djokovic was seeing the ball extraordinarily well. He masterfully varied the tempo and trajectory, which never allowed Nadal to settle into his comfort zone of familiarity.
"I enjoy playing the tournaments over and over again, trying to win as many titles as possible," Djokovic had said early in the tournament. "Trying to strive for some kind of perfection, if there is a perfection in this sport."
For about three minutes, anyway, Djokovic was flawless.
With Nadal serving at 2-3, Djokovic basically won the match. First, he hovered to the net and put down a gorgeous forehand volley drop shot, then he stepped into a backhand and cracked a cross-court winner. At 15-30, Djokovic hit a screaming forehand that seemed to clip the line. The replay challenge showed that about one-eighth an inch of the ball caught the paint. On break point, Djokovic's forehand found the line again and Rafa couldn't keep his answer inside the court.
When Djokovic was serving for the set, Nadal attempted a brief filibuster; down a point, he made a show of coming to his changeover chair and, presumably, adjusting an errant string. It didn't change the momentum, and Djokovic, with a triumphant glance at his box, strode off with the first set.
Nadal probably didn't know the number -- it might have been just as well -- but, previously, Djokovic was 34-0 in finals when winning the first set.
And then Djokovic broke Nadal to begin the second, opening the way to the second set. Make that 35-0.
Nadal said he was in good health but that he wasn't moving as well as he usually does.
"I feel that he was having too much success with every shot," he said. "I mean, he was able to find the right spot, the right position that was able to be in negative positions too early in the point. So playing against him is the worst thing that can happen for me, because in general, talking about the first two shots, he has a better return than my one, he has a better serve than my one in this surface, especially.
"On the rally points, I feel I was in tough conditions, in negative conditions, and this is impossible to play against him when you have that feeling."
Djokovic, who won his fourth consecutive Masters 1000 event, going back to last year, converted three of four break points and saved the only one he faced.
For all the chaos that ensued here in recent days, Sunday's final remains the essence of elite men's tennis today.
Juan Martin del Potro withdrew before Sony Open Tennis even began to undergo what looks to be Grand Slam season-ending wrist surgery. Australian Open champion Stanislas Wawrinka crashed out in his third match, and Kei Nishikori took down ATP World Tour No. 4 David Ferrer and No. 5 Roger Federer back to back. And then Nishikori and Tomas Berdych checked out before their semifinal matches.
The one constant over the past five years has been the thrilling and intricate speed chess match that is No. 1-ranked Nadal versus No. 2 Djokovic. They are, far and away, the best in their specialized business.
"Rafa, always a pleasure and a challenge playing you," Djokovic said after the match, meaning it.
Djokovic won Indian Wells and Miami back-to-back for the second time since 2011 -- the same year he won three majors.
"The matches that I have played, I played really well, and I elevated my game as the tournament progressed," he said. "The best performance of the tournament came in the right moment on Sunday against the biggest rival.
"There are no secrets between us. We know each other's game really well. In general, our game will be more or less the same. Nothing mainly is going to change. He's not gonna serve and volley, or myself. So I knew what kind of game plan is ahead of me, and I have realized that in a perfect manner."