Starting their Engines

by: Steve Tignor | April 20, 2015

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Djokovic leads the race to Paris, but is Nadal right where he wants to be as well? (AP Photo)

For the last four years, the clay-court swing on the men’s side has been a two-month, and mostly two-player, race to the finish line in Paris. Each of those years, Novak Djokovic has spent the majority of that race in the lead, only to see Roger Federer (once) and Rafael Nadal (three times) pass him on the final weekend in Paris. 

The starter’s gun went off again last week in Monte Carlo, and Djokovic has wasted no time in grabbing pole position. The world No. 1 won his second title in his adopted home. He beat—or “brushed aside,” as one headline put it—Nadal by the routine scores of 6-3, 6-3 in the semifinals. And he completed an unprecedented season-opening sweep of the first major and the first three Masters events. 

As he has at all of those tournaments, Djokovic finished by grinding all hope out of a briefly hopeful final-round opponent. This time the victim was Tomas Berdych. The Czech made Djokovic wobble, but couldn’t make him fall down in a 7-5, 4-6, 6-3 defeat. The biggest surprise was that, after going up 4-0 in the third, Djokovic couldn’t serve Berdych a concluding bagel, the way he did to Murray in Melbourne and Miami.

But if winning final sets 6-3 rather than 6-0 is your biggest issue, you’re doing something right. At the moment it’s Djokovic’s world, and the rest of the tour has to live in it. He’s 30-2 on the season, has won 18 straight matches, is 5,000 points ahead of No. 2 Roger Federer in the rankings, and has accrued more points in the Race to London than the next two players—Berdych and Andy Murray—combined.

After the final, Djokovic said it had been a battle, and that he had to “win ugly” to get through it. But he also couldn’t deny that he’s in an enviable position right now, one that doesn’t come often to tennis players.

“It’s been a remarkable start to the season for me,” he said. “Of course, couldn’t ask for a better start of the clay-court season.”

“So I’m healthy, obviously very confident,” he added a little later. “Everything is going in the right direction.”

Finally, Djokovic expanded his positive self-assessment to include his personal life.

“I’m 27. Obviously I’m experiencing the time of my life on the tennis court,” he said, “and also private life. Became a father, of course. I’m just trying sometimes to pinch myself and say, ‘Where [am I] at this point in my life? I’m grateful for this, for everything I’ve got.”

Where is Djokovic at this point in his playing life? He has, as he did in 2011, erased the line that typically divides hard-court and clay-court tennis. What works for him on one surface works equally well on the other. In Monte Carlo he added the drop shot back to his arsenal, and hit it as often and as effectively as he ever has. Against Rafa, Djokovic had little trouble forcing the rallies into the patterns—backhand angled sharply crosscourt, backhand driven down the line—that he needs to create to beat the Spaniard on clay. 

To me, though, what seems most enviable about Djokovic’s form right now is that he has reached 30-2 and won four big events without being utterly dominant. He has, in a sense, given himself a series of self-examinations and passed them all. Melbourne, Indian Wells, Miami, Monte Carlo: In each of those finals, Djokovic struggled, tightened up, even briefly lost control of his game. But just when he on the verge of actually falling behind, he found his form again and ran away with the match. Djokovic has experienced enough dips and lapses that recovering from them is, for the moment, second nature. Just as telling, he's confident enough to admit to having those dips and nerves.

“I was just trying to stay with the right intensity and focus for each point,” he said about his approach to the third set against Berdych, “because obviously you get tense when you’re not feeling so comfortable on the court, when you start missing.”

On Sunday Djokovic began to hear questions about his 18-match win streak. He answered by referencing the 43 straight matches he won to start 2011. 

“I got that question asked basically after every match [in 2011],” Djokovic recalled on Sunday. 'How long’s it going to go? How long is it going to go?’”

This year, if he were to win every match between now and the French Open final, Djokovic’s streak would reach 34. He would continue to be asked about it, of course, but not with the same pressurizing zeal as 2011, when he was trying to break John McEnroe's season-opening record. Having one less goal to reach, and one less question to answer, shouldn't hurt him as Paris approaches.

Things, as Djokovic says, really are going his way. Right now, even his imperfections are working for him.

Yet if it’s Djokovic’s world, it’s still Rafael Nadal’s surface. As I wrote at the top, over the last four years Nadal has often found himself trailing Djokovic in the race to Roland Garros, yet he has ended up the winner there each time. That includes 2013, when Djokovic knocked Nadal off in straight sets in the Monte Carlo final only to have Rafa turn the tables in the semifinals at the French. 

If Djokovic is in pole position again, where does that leave Nadal? Is it possible that, as the chaser rather than the chased, he’s right where he wants to be? 

While admitting to his own case of nerves in Miami, Nadal has been determinedly upbeat about his progress and prospects for 2015, in the face of a fair amount of evidence to the contrary. He remained that way even after being convincingly beaten by Djokovic on a Monte Carlo court that he once owned.

“The way I played yesterday [in his quarterfinal win over David Ferrer] and for moments today is the way that I want to play,” Nadal said. “Just with more matches playing like this, I will be enough confident to play. That level will not be the exception, will be the normal thing...In general, where I came from one week ago, two weeks ago, after what happened in Miami, I got to the next tournament with the feeling that I make a big improvement in my game, in my mental part. I hope this tournament is a key for my season.”

Nadal is playing the long game again. It worked for him in 2010 and 2013, when he finished No. 1. Getting back to the top in 2015 is a long shot, but Rafa has obviously proven that the French Open is always within his grasp, no matter what his form is like early in the clay season. Already he can say that he's ahead of his pace from last year: In 2014, he started the spring swing by losing to Ferrer in Monte Carlo and Nicolas Almagro in Barcelona. 

Nadal will head to Barcelona again this week, while Djokovic will walk back down the hill from his house to practice in Monte Carlo. As it always does, their four-week marathon through the red clay of Europe will pit a variety of factors and unknowns against each other. Surface and history favor Nadal; form and the dynamics of their rallies favor Djokovic. Each man, as he marches toward Madrid and Rome, can say that he's where he wants to be. 

Will form finally overcome history in Paris? Will Djokovic make good on his decade-old claim that Nadal is beatable at Roland Garros? We won’t have our answer until June. Until then, we have the race, which is the best part of all.

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