MIAMI, Fla.—Mornin'. We have a rare opportunity today to see the two best players of the moment meet in a final just two weeks since they last played. This "bookends" factor is fairly rare and always welcome, because it's a great opportunity to see just what determines the course of destiny when great competitors clash. What happened at Indian Wells is still fresh in our minds; there, Nadal's serve let him down (encouraged by Novak Djokovic's excellent return).
Nadal, the world No. 1, has played better here than in the desert. It's always fun to listen him speak of his game, because he does so with a kind of child-like reverence that could be mistaken for boasting were it not for his tone, which applies a kind of psychological preface of Wow, I can't hardly believe this myself, and I sure hope I'm right about this, but..."
Here he is, from his last presser: "Right now the important thing is—I came back after not easy start of the season, because I felt before Australia I was feeling perfect, playing very, very well. For different things, I didn't have the results that I thought I going to have the chance to do, no? So wasn't easy for me to accept I didn't play the last rounds of the first tournaments of the season, because I felt I was ready to do it. But I came back, and this is the second final in a row, so that's fantastic comeback. I'm very happy right now. We'll see what's going on in this final. I'm very happy about everything."
And if you believe that the difference in the court surface here may prove critical one way or the other, consider Nadal's reply when he was asked if he liked this surface in Miami better than the one at Indian Wells: "I love every surface when I am playing well; when I am playing bad, I don't like no one surface. Indian Wells is a fantastic surface for me. I played six semifinals in a row, I think, and two championships, one final. Here I never won, so I can't say it's better surface here than Indian Wells. For me both are good. We'll see..."
Not a great deal has changed in either man's game or mindset in 14 days. Nadal's game has obviously clarified; some of the ragged edges we saw at Indian Wells have been smoothed out and he's looking especially good in what is the most critical but perhaps least visible department: his movement.
But while it may seem that Djokovic is just treading water (or is champagne?—Just how much room for improvement can there be?), what you might call the specific gravity of his game has increased. He's won an incredible 57 of 62 sets during this perfect 23-0 start to 2011. And in his five matches here, he's held serve every time (saving 13 break points along the way), and lost a mere 18 games in five matches (his toughest match was a 6-4, 6-2 win over Kevin Anderson in the quarterfinals).
When he was asked after his semifinal win if he simply kicks his focus into another gear when break point down, he replied: "Yes, yes, focus and just trying to get it right. You know, you obviously feel pressure and tension in these moments when you're break point down, especially at this level where you know if you lose your serve it's going to be very hard to get it back. But, you know, I tried to, you know, kind of play simple at that stage. Tried to hit some good serves and hit one, two, shots, and it works okay..."
To me, the key to this match will be similar to the one that determined their last meeting: serve and return. Who's going to serve more effectively, or take the initiative in the rallies more often with his return. It's ironic, but who would have thought that the clash of such superb baseliners could come down to such a stark and simple matter—the very same questions that might have preceded a Wimbledon final between two big servers, say, Goran Ivanisevic and Pete Sampras.
At another level, though, it's understandable. Nadal and Djokovic are such talented baseliners and such good movers that on hard courts the groundstroke battle is a wash. Of course, if one of them makes an unexpected number of errors (or winners), the matter could be decided on terms other than serve and return efficiency, but these are two very consistent ball strikers.
I find it hard to go against Djokovic, because of what you might call his degree of confidence and his current serving prowess. As he said the other day, "No, I don't feel invincible. I don't feel that I can't lose on the court. What I feel is big confidence. What I feel is that I'm playing best tennis of my life. This is as simple as that.
"As I said before, it's mental game, so physically I've been working very hard and dedicating a lot of time to some elements in my game, like serve, and it's paying off now. I feel that I'm serving as best as I think ever. It's really important to have this advantage obviously, because today there is so many great returners and movers, so to get a couple of free points on your serve a crucial."
I see no reason why Djokovic should suffer a letdown now. By sundown, I expect Rafa will be eager to get back on his red clay, and plotting the punishment he'll want to inflict on Djokovic over the coming weeks. No disrespect to our deserving No. 1, but it's Novak's time now.