Monday, April 4, 2011
It's Djokovic's world and we're all just in it...
Remember the 2009 clay season? The 2 months of European clay that could have might as well been named the Nadal-Djokovic saga... The two had faced off in the Monte Carlo final, Rome final as well as the Madrid semifinals.
That Madrid semifinal was possibly the match that pushed Nadal's knees over the edge that year, but it was also arguably the match of the season. No player had managed to push Rafa on clay like Djokovic did in that match, but the Djokovic of 2009 was missing something to pull off a win like that over the greatest player to ever grace the clay courts.
Fast forward two years and another clay season is upon us and from the looks of it, Djokovic and Nadal might once again headline the clay events, except this time Djokovic has learnt to fly... both literally and figuratively I must add.
There was no doubt that when Djokovic showed up on the tennis scene and claimed his first big title at the 2007 Miami Masters, that the Serb had the kind of tennis one could label as complete. He had the serve, the forehand, the backhand, the movement and the shot selection. If anything, he wasn't really a natural volleyer but technically, he seemed as good as they can get.
Still it's almost impossible to have the absolute complete package. I say "almost" because at times, Federer and Nadal make it seem like they have it, a fact that had separated Djokovic from those two the past few years essentially because his mental strength and self confidence were constantly in question.
His fitness of course was subject to the most scrutiny due to a handful of retirements from some big matches like against Nadal at Roland Garros 2006 and Wimbledon 2007, against Federer in Monte Carlo 2008 or against Roddick at Australian Open 2009.
Few denied his technical supremacy but many questioned his fitness, consistency, mental strength and resilience. In those regards, Nadal and Federer were in a different league.
Little however can be criticized in the new and improved Novak Djokovic. Many things, small and big, led him to where he is right now, the reigning Australian Open champion, undefeated since last December winning 26 straight matches and capturing 4 out of 4 tournaments in 2011 including 2 ATP 1000 trophies besides the Australian Open one.
He beat Federer 3 straight times already this year, and Nadal twice in as many weeks. He is high on confidence and has a new-found resilience that allows him to turn around matches against someone like Nadal who rarely loses after winning the first set.
His achievements the past 3 months are unparalleled since 1986 when Ivan Lendl had that perfect 25-0 start to the season, but his performance against Nadal in Miami Sunday night stands out.
For starters, in what world does Rafa get more tired than his opponent? In what world does Rafa stand still without attempting to return a lob or a drop shot? In what world does Rafa return poorly on second serve? In what world does Rafa appear like an underdog? More disturbingly, feel like an underdog? In what world is Rafa out-rallied, out-smarted and over-powered?
It is a world where Novak Djokovic has managed to gather all the pieces that were missing from his game, improve on the pieces he already had, put them together and decide to fly. That is a world I am lucky to bare witness to.
Besides the super confidence, the mental strength, the excellent serving, and inch perfect shots, Djokovic even came to the net 21 times and was successful in 16 of those approaches.
I don't know when exactly all those tweaks to his game happened but I know that Head video definitely helped. I mean playing tennis on the wings of a plane... that's just genius!
So if people are wondering if Djokovic can challenge Nadal on clay the way he has in Indian Wells and Miami, my answer to them is yes. I think he can. He was this close to beating Nadal in 2009 when he wasn't playing this good or feeling this strong, so there is a great chance that Djokovic can take this edge into the clay season against the world number one. I'm not saying he's winning Roland Garros because that's still like 4 tournaments away and he is bound to slow down or get tired, but at this moment, I believe Djokovic is totally capable of challenging Rafa on clay.
One thing we know for sure is that Nadal pays little attention to others and focuses on himself, on playing well and getting good results. It was never about chasing Federer or reaching a certain number of Slam wins, he just feeds on his need to improve and work hard to win every single match. But when asked, he says Djokovic is on his way to the top.
"I think he's going to be No. 1. I don't feel he's breathing down my neck. The thing is, that's part of sport. We will see at the end of the season who's No. 1, who's No. 2, and who's No. 20... It's difficult for me to say my goal is be No. 1. My goal is be competitive in every tournament. If I do that, I going to have my chance to be No. 1," said Nadal after his loss in Miami.
"Djokovic won 2 tournaments in a row right now, very big tournaments and 1 Grand Slam. Normal thing is he will be No. 1 in the next month, month and a half, two months. I don't know. Depends on my results on clay. For sure he will be there, no? I going to fight for me. If I am solid, if I play a very good clay court season, we will see what's going on after."
Of course we'll have to wait and see but the million dollar question now is: Who will be the first to beat Djokovic in 2011?