Had Novak Djokovic really won his last seven matches against Rafael Nadal without dropping a set? After the first game of their semifinal in Madrid on Saturday, you could have been forgiven for believing that the opposite was the case.
Nadal began the match with an aggressive grunt, and an aggressive forehand pass that elicited an equally aggressive cheer from the Spanish audience. Three points later, Djokovic, already looking a little shellshocked, tried to serve and volley, something he almost never does against Nadal. Rafa passed him easily for the break. Ten minutes later, he had another break. Twenty minutes after that, he had won his first set from Djokovic since 2014, 6-2.
The beauty of the rivalry between these two players has always been its back-and-forth quality. One player takes the upper hand, until the other takes it back. In 2011 and 2012, Djokovic had also won seven straight over Nadal, before Rafa found a way to turn the tables in time to win the French Open. Did he do the same thing today? All the signs say yes, but this time he did it in a new way.
For one of the few times in his career, it was Nadal’s serve that made the difference. With prodding from new coach Carlos Moya, he has mixed up his locations more this season. Against Djokovic, who has historically killed him with his return, Nadal reversed his normal tactic entirely. Rather than pound the slice to the backhand side, he went to Djokovic’s forehand. It surprised Djokovic, and eventually opened up the backhand side.
At 1-0 in the first Nadal made two unforced errors with his forehand, but got himself out of the jam with his serve. At 4-1, he held with a big serve down the T. Serving for the set at 5-2, he sent an ace out wide. At 4-3 in the second set, he hit a service winner to reach 30-0 and held at love. In the final game, at 5-4, he won a crucial point with a second serve that landed on the line. Nadal faced just two break points in the match.
The change-it-up theme extended to Nadal’s ground strokes. Rather than rely on the old reliable, his crosscourt forehand, Nadal welcomed the chance to roll his crosscourt backhand into Djokovic’s forehand and push him backward. Nadal’s backhand has been getting stronger for at least the last year, but today was the first time it had a positive effect against Djokovic. In the same way that Roger Federer’s improved backhand has helped him break free of losing patterns against Nadal, Rafa was able to scramble his own losing patterns against Djokovic on Saturday.
When nerves struck Nadal in the final game, it was his backhand that helped save him. Serving for the match at 5-4, Rafa went down 0-15, but he leveled at 15-15 with an aggressive crosscourt backhand that was followed by a down-the-line backhand winner. Up 40-30, match point, Rafa sent a nervous forehand long, and then put another nervous forehand into the net. But when he got back to match point, and got a look at a backhand pass, he didn’t show any nerves at all. He put it at Djokovic’s feet, and sealed a 6-2, 6-4 win that may have been his most satisfying of 2017 so far.
“Important match for me,” Nadal said. “I lost a lot of times in a row [to Djokovic].”
He also talked about his new approach to playing his nemesis.
“To play Novak’s backhand is not a tactic,” he said. “I don’t think it’s what I should do.”
This time, Rafa had the capability, with his serve and his backhand, to use a different tactic.
As for Djokovic, he was off, and for a guy who had won seven straight against his opponent, he seemed surprisingly uncertain of his ability to make it eight. He was at Nadal’s mercy through the early going, and didn’t loosen up until he was down 1-5.
But any signs of energy from Djokovic were quickly deflated. In the first game of the second set, he made three loose forehand errors and was broken. After breaking back for 2-2, Djokovic lost the momentum again with a double fault and sent a makable backhand wide on break point. Each time you thought Djokovic was going to sink his teeth into this match, he let it go again.
But Djokovic being Djokovic, he made Nadal earn it. Down double match point at 4-5, he played his most focused tennis of the day to reach break point. There the two engaged in a vintage all-court rally that Nadal finally won with a flawlessly placed backhand drop shot. What would have happened if that dropper hadn’t been that good, and if Djokovic had broken for 5-5? All we know is that Rafa was sharp enough today to make it perfect.
I wrote last week that no matter how well Nadal was playing, he wouldn’t be the favorite to win the French Open until he had beaten Djokovic. Now he’s the favorite to make it an even 10 in Paris, the way he already has in Monte Carlo and Barcelona.
It’s fitting that the 50th match between Nadal and Djokovic would signal another shift in the balance of power between them. Their record stands at 26-24 in favor of the Serb, but this long-running battle is never over, or settled for long. Each inspires the other to find and make new adjustments.
Still, Djokovic won’t feel good about this loss. He could only summon his old confidence and consistency for short periods of time, and his determination to find a new coach sooner rather than later looks like the right move. Still, his play in the final game did give us a taste of the brilliant tennis we’re likely to see again from these two, possibly over the next few weeks in Rome and Paris.
If Djokovic can take some solace in the fact that he made Nadal work for it at the end, Rafa can be even happier with the way he responded. Djokovic forced Nadal to alter his tactics in new ways, and to make his backhand as strong as it has ever been. Rafa showed that, even as he’s about to turn 31, he can still rise to a new challenge.
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