MIAMI, Fla.—Whatever happens in Sunday’s Miami men’s final, neither fans of No. 1 Rafael Nadal nor No. 2 Novak Djokovic will be able to claim fatigue as an excuse. Kei Nishikori and Tomas Berdych took care of that when they both pulled out of their Friday semifinals, giving the finalists a welcome, extra day of rest.
This is a dream final, and only the second time in the tournament’s history that the top two players in the world will square off (the same was true on the WTA side). The other time it happened was in 1995, when Pete Sampras faced Andre Agassi.
The top two seeds, however, have met in the finals here four times—the last being the 2011 final, in which these same two gents had at each other.
Going into this installment, Djokovic can be forgiven if he’s feeling a prickly sensation on the back of his neck, or has been looking over his shoulder before he takes out his hotel room keycard. Nadal has earned back the No. 1 ranking Djokovic snatched away from him almost three years ago to the day, but he seems hellbent on continuing to assert his superiority. He just keeps coming. It has to make his rival nervous.
The urgency in Nadal is understandable in the short-term. Djokovic pocketed the first Masters event of the year at Indian Wells almost two weeks ago, while Nadal flamed out in the third round. Nadal does have more to prove here, and the cautionary note for Djokovic is that he’s been doing it.
“I think I played more solid than what I did in Indian Wells and Rio, and I played with better movements, too,” Nadal said. “I lost my serve only one time during the whole tournament, and that's very important for me on this surface.”
The only hiccup Nadal has experienced here, by his own estimation, was his slow start against hard-serving Milos Raonic in a quarterfinal plagued by swirling winds that affected both men.
In his first three matches, Nadal lost a grand total of nine games. He dropped a set to Raonic, but lifted his game in the third set and left the stadium satisfied.
Djokovic has also had a relatively easy time of it, losing 23 games in three matches; he also benefitted from two walkovers. But you have to wonder about his motivation. He’s coming off a tournament where he fought for vindication and triumphed.
“For many reasons it was a very special tournament for me,” Djokovic said of Indian Wells. “I came back from set down in several matches to win the tournament, and it gave me a lot of wind in the back, a lot of confidence that I carried on in Miami.”
Djokovic added that coming back from a set down to win, 7-6 in the third, against Roger Federer in the final “meant a lot for my confidence.” At times, Djokovic has sounded more relieved than inspired, and it’s hard to dispel the nagging feeling that at this stage he still hasn’t recovered that extra spark it takes to dominate his rivals. That’s a spark that Nadal has lacked only while he felt his way through his 2013 comeback. If Djokovic spots him a set, that third-set tiebreaker will seem far, far away.
So Nadal seems to have the mental edge going into this one. Game-wise, I think a lot will depend on how well Nadal serves. Although his trademark is sensational defense, Nadal most dangerous when he takes the initiative and forces the action. These days, Djokovic seems willing to let his opponents call the shots. That’s understandable: He’s the most well-balanced player on the tour, and he’s got a knack for on-the-trot problem solving.
But Nadal is no run-of-the-mill problem, as Djokovic has learned. This will be their first clash in 2014, and on Sunday we’ll see how prepared he is to apply his knowledge.