In must-win ATP Cup match, Djokovic extends dominant run against Nadal

In must-win ATP Cup match, Djokovic extends dominant run against Nadal

The Serbian has now beaten the Spaniard in nine consecutive hard-court matches, leaving the ATP Cup to be decided by doubles.

On an upcoming episode of 60 Minutes, Rafael Nadal told Tennis Channel’s Jon Wertheim that if you don’t have doubts before a match, “it probably means you’re being arrogant.”

The 19-time Grand Slam champion believes this whether he’s an overwhelming favorite or a sizable underdog. Neither was the case on Sunday against Novak Djokovic, whom Nadal has beaten 26 times but lost to 28 times—but there was still plenty of reason for doubt. Nadal had lost his last eight hard-court matches to Djokovic, most recently a year ago in Australia, for a Grand Slam title, when Djokovic played perhaps his best-ever match against his career rival.

The two returned to the continent not with yet another major on the line, but with the inaugural ATP Cup at stake. And with Spain’s Roberto Bautista Agut’s 7-5, 6-1 win over Serbia’s Dusan Lajovic earlier in the day, the pressure was on Djokovic to keep his nation’s hopes alive in the best-of-three match format.

But as Nadal and so many others have seen, it’s when Djokovic is behind that he’s at his most dangerous.

Djokovic wasn’t behind very often in the match itself—a 6-2, 7-6 (4) win that leaves Nadal without a hard-court win over the Serbian since the 2013 US Open final. The first set was a Djokovic masterclass: the ball exploded off his racquet from both sides; he moved Nadal around the court like a chess piece; he was in complete command of every aspect of his tennis. It was difficult not to compare the display to Djokovic’s straight-set annihilation of Nadal last year in Melbourne.

Nadal stemmed the tidal wave in the second set, and seemed primed to answer with a surge of his own at 3-2. There, he earned his first break point of the match—three of them, in fact, at 0-40. But Djokovic would save all three—and another two, in fact—to put even more doubt into Nadal’s mind.

In the 60 Minutes teaser, Nadal says that doubts can be strengths, and that was personified in the 5-5 game, when he saved two break points with some of his most inventive and aggressive tennis of the evening. The two players were peaking at the same time, resulting in one of the most entertaining sets they've played over the course of their 55 matches.

But in this match, Nadal's doubts were too much to overcome. So was Djokovic's two-handed backhand, which was at its brutal best at 4-4 in the second-set tiebreaker. With Nadal establishing more of a baseline presence as the games wore on, Djokovic had to hit bigger in order to make an impact. He took two cross-court swipes that Nadal did well to simply return—but Djokovic wasn't satisfied, and he ended the pivotal point with down-the-line backhand winner.

Two points later, Djokovic won, forcing a winner-takes-the-Cup doubles match between Serbia and Spain. In all likelihood, Nadal and Djokovic will return the court for it. The ATP couldn't have asked for a better way for his new competition to debut.