So Much Closer, But Still So Far Away

by: Steve Tignor | March 19, 2016

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Rafael Nadal was better, but Novak Djokovic was still the best in their entertaining semifinal. (AP)

Novak Djokovic walked back to the baseline, stared at his strings and flashed the slimmest hint of a smile. He had reached match point for the sixth time in his semifinal against Rafael Nadal at the BNP Paribas Open, and he had done it with a trademark touch of Djokovichian brilliance. 

At deuce, Nadal had slid a good serve down the T, one that would have won him the point against virtually anyone else. But not against this opponent. Djokovic floated his body toward the middle of the court, reached out with a one-handed backhand, and blocked the ball to a perfect spot, a few inches from the far sideline. Then he followed it by thumping a forehand down the line for a crowd-silencing, momentum-killing winner. Nadal, who had fought hard to stay alive for the previous two hours, was deflated again, and so was the audience that had been behind him the whole way. This time, instead of worrying about who was or wasn't on his side, Djokovic seemed to be slyly enjoying his role as the tennis world’s big, bad, unbeatable No. 1.

And he should, because while his 7-6 (5), 6-2 win wasn’t the finest performance of Djokovic's career—he made 29 errors against 23 winners, was three of 12 on break points, and nearly gave away a 4-1 lead in the first-set tiebreaker—he has rarely looked so invincible. Nadal, a 14-time Grand Slam winner and a man who has beaten Djokovic 23 times before, threw everything he could at his old rival, and played his best tennis against him in two years. He broke Djokovic to start the match, held a set point in the first set and had the fans on their feet when he roared back to knot the tiebreaker at 5-5. Later, down 2-5 in the second set, Nadal scraped his way back from 0-40 and saved five match points with his customary cussedness. Yet Djokovic still beat him in straight sets, going away, looking stronger with every game.

“He’s loving this,” ESPN commentator Patrick McEnroe said as a smiling Djokovic bobbed and weaved his way through Nadal’s best punches.

Djokovic won in familiar ways. He won because he’s better at the two most important shots in the sport, the serve and the return, which allows him to start the majority of points on his front foot. He won because his flatter ground strokes work better on hard courts. Even when Rafa hit with decent depth on Saturday, his loopier topspin gave Djokovic time to run around and hit attacking forehands. In he same way that Nadal was always more aggressive against Roger Federer than anyone else, Djokovic is more aggressive against Rafa than he is against anyone else.

Most of all, Djokovic won because Nadal no longer has the upper hand on him mentally. The Serb came into this match having beaten the Spaniard in five straight matches and 11 straight sets. That meant he could go down a break early and not panic; he could face a set point and brush it aside with a strong first serve and a stronger forehand; he could watch Nadal scramble all over the court and win a spectacular point, then calmly respond with an unspectacular, but equally effective, service winner out wide into the deuce court.

The last weapon, the sliding serve out wide, was new. Djokovic has always had that shot, of course, but I hadn’t seen him use it so effectively against Nadal in the past. Chalk it up as one more obstacle in the Djokovic game that Rafa must find a way around.

Yet Nadal still made it farther up the No. 1 mountain than he has lately, and he injected some energy into a rivalry that had been on life support for the better part of two years. This was the first time Rafa had pushed Djokovic to a tiebreaker in any set since he beat him in the French Open final in 2014. That may sound like a small victory, but those are the only kinds you get against Djokovic these days. 

On Saturday, Nadal’s forehand and backhand had stick, his returns had depth, and his serve had more bite than it did when they met in Doha in January. That match was little more than a glorified batting-practice session for Djokovic; this one was a fight. Nadal tried to work his forehand to Djokovic’s backhand, and while he mostly failed to stretch him wide, he held his own in the rallies. Nadal said afterward that he was happy with his effort and his tactics. Even after losing a heartbreaker of a first set, he stayed in it. 

Until he didn’t. By the middle of the second, Nadal, one of the game’s great physical forces, was spent, and the errors began to fly. In the parlance of long-distance runners, he had hit the wall, except that in this case the wall was his opponent. 

Later, Nadal was asked if he was frustrated about losing so many times to Djokovic. Rafa smiled and said, “So everybody’s frustrated?” He's not the only one.

In Indian Wells, Nadal was better than he has been, but all that did was prove again why Djokovic is the best.

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