Djokovic beats Nadal for Miami title; now 24-0 in 2011
KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. (AP)—The target of Novak Djokovic’s most vicious forehand was a wooden ball box, and the swing produced an angry thud.
He disposed of another uncooperative racket by flinging it to the concrete, drawing jeers from an otherwise supportive crowd.
After that Djokovic fared better, as did his equipment. He staged his second comeback victory over top-ranked Rafael Nadal in as many weeks, this time to win the Sony Ericsson Open, 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4).
Djokovic remains ranked No. 2, but he heads into the clay-court season with a 26-match winning streak that includes four tournament titles. His record of 24-0 in 2011 is the best to begin a year since Ivan Lendl started 25-0 in 1986.
Sunday’s win ranked with the most impressive. On a sunny, 85-degree afternoon, Djokovic swapped shots with the sport’s most physically punishing player for nearly 3 1/2 hours.
It was Djokovic who looked fresher at the finish.
“Such a close match,” the Serb said. “To win against the No. 1 player of the world in a tiebreak in the third set, it’s just incredible.”
He whacked a cross-court winner on the final point, then jumped with glee and signaled to encourage more cheers from the roaring crowd. It’s a familiar routine: His also won finals this year at the Australian Open, Dubai and Indian Wells.
“What he’s doing is unbelievable,” Nadal said. “First thing, he’s very good; second thing, he’s playing with big confidence. When you’re winning, it’s easier to keep winning.”
Nadal hasn’t won a tournament since Tokyo in October, but Djokovic is not ready to claim he deserves the No. 1 spot.
“It’s the best four months in my life, but it’s only the start of the season,” he said. “It’s a bit early to talk about getting that top spot in the rankings. Rafa is definitely the best player in the world now. If I want to have the No. 1 ranking, I need to play consistently well throughout the whole year.”
Djokovic also overcame a one-set deficit to beat Nadal in the Indian Wells final two weeks ago and is 8-0 against top-10 opponents this year. He’s the first man to win Indian Wells and Key Biscayne back to back since Roger Federer in 2006.
Nadal fell to 0-3 in Key Biscayne finals.
“Maybe I was a little bit more nervous than other days,” Nadal said, “maybe because I never won here, and this is the third chance.”
Djokovic earned his second Key Biscayne title. When he won in 2007, it was the biggest victory of his career.
He has since collected two Grand Slam championships, and as the victories mount, his popularity rises. Although he played against a Spaniard in a region with strong Latin ties, more than half of the capacity crowd of 14,625 seemed to favor Djokovic.
Fans frequently chanted “No-le! No-le!”—his nickname. In response came chants of “Ra-fa! Ra-fa!” Serb and Spanish flags dotted the colorful stands.
“Any support is welcome,” Djokovic said, “especially in these very close matches. The atmosphere was amazing.”
He fell behind early, dropping serve for the first time in the tournament. The attack on the ball box came after he dumped a forehand in the net to end the first set.
There was another fit of racket abuse three games later, and he often vented by shouting at the section where his coach and friends sat.
“Look, it’s intense,” Djokovic said. “I’m an emotional player, and I show my emotions.”
Gradually he climbed back into the match, despite Nadal’s best efforts. Both players misfired—they had 36 unforced errors apiece—but there were plenty of riveting rallies. One lasted 26 strokes; another ended with Djokovic tumbling near the net post after he flicked a lunging backhand cross-court for a winner.
Then the heat began to take a toll. It was the sort of day when fluttering fans—the kind you hold—filled the stands.
Djokovic panted after particularly long points, while a sweaty Nadal repeatedly toweled off his face, arms and even legs. The Spaniard changed his shirt at least five times, which delighted squealing segments of the crowd.
Both players held throughout the final set. In the 12th game, Djokovic twice found himself two points from defeat, but soon the fans had what they wanted: a winner-take-all tiebreaker.
“It was obvious that both of us were slowing down toward the end,” Djokovic said. “In the tiebreak, it was really anybody’s game. Until the last shot, I didn’t know if I was going to win or not.”
The fourth point proved pivotal. Djokovic put Nadal on the run, sending him left to right to left before finding an opening to hit a winner. The 15-shot rally left the crowd in a roar and Nadal hunched over in exhaustion.
Nadal double-faulted on the next point to fall behind 3-2. Djokovic won the next three points, as well.
“Nothing left in my body right now,” Nadal said 90 minutes after the match. “I love these kind of matches.”
With a smile he added, “For sure I love to win, not lose.”
On the final point, he couldn’t chase down a forehand from Djokovic, who broke into a grin and gently dropped his racket, rewarding it in the end for a job well done.