Rome: Djokovic d. Nadal

Sunday, May 15, 2011 /by

Novak I'm not sure just when the unlikely becomes the improbable morphs into the unthinkable and evolves into the impossible, but I'm pretty sure we've crossed that threshold when it comes to Novak Djokovic and this streak, which now stands at 39 following his persuasive 6-4, 6-4 win over Rafael Nadal in the final of the Internazionali BNL d'Italia, aka the Rome Masters.

A few weeks ago, before the start of the Madrid Masters, the question hanging heavy over tennis was, "Despite beating Nadal in two consecutive Masters finals, could Djokovic (0-9 on clay against Nadal going into this spring's Euroclay circuit) break through and get a win over him on the world No. 1's surface of choice?"

Djokovic answered that question affirmatively in Madrid, and he's now repeated the reply, with greater force and volume, just in case we weren't listening. Djokovic is real, even if his tennis presently is unreal. He inadvertently added an extra twist to the story he's been writing this week,  drubbing Nadal while rebounding from a three-hour battle royale with Andy Murray barely 24 hours earlier.

The narrative set-up was simple: Murray, playing his most inspired (and that's not to be scoffed at with this guy) and best match of the year, twice led Djokovic by a break in the third set of their semifinal, but the Serb and world No. 2 pulled out the match in a tiebreaker. Still, given that over the past two weeks the finalists have played match-a-day, Masters-grade tennis against the best fields possible from Wednesday through Sunday, the headline writers and scribes were preparing their bon mots: "Bucket to Nadal, Assist to Murray. . ."

But once again, Djokovic demonstrated what by now seems his nearly surreal stamina, as well as his razor-sharp focus and, well, eagerness to win—it's been a demonstration we might all keep in mind when those inevitable length-of-the-season arguments or the general demands of the pros next break out. Djokovic is busy making the case that tennis can be no less of a mind-over-matter proposition than any other enterprise.

The key points: In the seventh game of the first set, with the score at 3-all, Djokovic ramped his game up a notch from 15-all, attacking and putting his foot down on the gas for an easy hold just to show that he was feeling no ill effects—to that point—of his previous night's work. It was no coincidence that Djokovic broke Nadal in the very next game, and even though Nadal broke right back, the precedent was sufficiently alarming to allow Djokovic break Nadal a second time, which earned him the first set. He won the set with the rally-ending shot that's become his trademark, the penetrating, cross-court, backhand winner.

Still, as the second set unfurled, Djokovic's stamina had to be on everyone's mind, perhaps even his own. He looked drawn and wan, at times, despite those burning eyes and frequent expostulations. Djokovic broke Nadal in the second game, but he was unable to hold the next game. Then he set himself up with two break points with Nadal serving at 1-2, 15-40. 

It wasn't so much that Djokovic lost those two break points; it was more the way he lost them, with a pair of uncharacteristic errors made by tired or listless, flat-footed players. Nadal held for 2-all and you had to think, "Is Djokovic finally running out of steam?"

But that proved to be Djokovic's only real crisis of the match. He caught a second—or was it a third? Fifth? Ninth?—wind and tightened up his game. Seemingly refreshed, he pressed the attack again, as he had all evening, implacable and untractable. Once again, he opted to engage in a good old-fashioned slugfest with Nadal, and the greatest ally of that smooth backhand and piledriver forehand was Djokovic's superb movement.

I don't know what the next installment after "impossible" is, but stay tuned for it. It's kind of fun, right?

—Pete Bodo

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