With his authoritative back-to-back title runs in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, No. 1 Rafael Nadal has thrown down the gantlet at the fast feet of No. 2 Novak Djokovic, who will begin his red clay court season this week at home in Belgrade.
Djokovic clearly ruled the first three months of the year on hard courts, going undefeated while winning the Australian Open and at Indian Wells and Miami. But Nadal has shown once again that he is the player to beat on clay, as he navigated through two strong fields and is on a 34-match winning streak on clay that dates to his loss to Robin Soderling at the 2009 French Open.
With a strenuous schedule upcoming, Djokovic was smart to rest after his two dramatic wins over Nadal at the Indian Wells and Miami finals. He’s playing at home this week at the Belgrade Open and most likely will be the biggest story in town, let alone his country, for the next seven days.
Then he’ll have to go up against star-studded fields in the mandatory tournaments at Madrid and Rome that will include Nadal, No. 3 Roger Federer, No. 4 Andy Murray and Americans such as Andy Roddick and Sam Querrey.
This week we will know whether Djokovic has restructured his life and career to the point at which he can successfully play in his home tournament and not run himself into the ground trying to appease everyone. He failed to accomplish this last year, retiring due to illness in the second round of the Serbia Open against Filip Krajinovic. Still reeling from the illness, Djokovic then pulled out of Madrid and squandered a two-sets-to-love lead against Jurgen Melzer in the quarterfinals at Paris, a match he calls one of the low points of his career.
"The first six months of 2010 was really tough for me in the sense of finding myself on the court — and off the court, as well," he said. "I did have some private issues that I was struggling with, and that affected my health and my game. I wasn’t really enjoying playing tennis at that time. Luckily for me, I managed to stay strong, and from Wimbledon on it was a different story."
Djokovic has talked about separating his personal life from his professional one. He employs a sports psychologist, who might have helped him come to grips with the fact that he doesn’t have to please everyone. He’s found a nutritionist, who has cut gluten out of his diet, and he seems to be quicker and able to last longer in matches.
But it’s one thing to beat Nadal on hard courts, where Djokovic is at his strongest, and another to do so on clay, a surface Nadal dominates. Nadal’s defense on clay is nearly impenetrable, helping him win the Barcelona title for the sixth time and capture his 31st clay court crown.
Nadal, who is 9-0 against Djokovic on dirt (16-9 overall), has shown he has the willpower and stamina to stay on court as long as it takes and keeps his foes pinned behind the baseline until their legs give out.
But while No. 6 David Ferrer, who lost to Nadal in both the Monte Carlo and Barcelona finals, says that his friend is the best ever on clay, he is intrigued by the rise of Djokovic, telling the Spanish newspaper El Pais that having the Serbian match up with his Davis Cup teammate is great for the game.
"It breaks a bit of the usual duality between Nadal and Federer," he said. "To have Djokovic there is a great moment; there will be bigger television audiences and that’s always good."
However, that doesn’t mean Ferrer thinks the Serbian is bound to find a way to slug past Nadal on clay. On hard courts, Djokvic can take command of points early, both with his serve and his ability to go after Nadal’s second serves, but on clay he must be willing to construct lengthy points. Without a doubt he’s capable of doing so, but the only way he’s going to continue his 2011 unbeaten streak well into June is to take risks and execute, because it’s hard to see him ripping outright winners against Nadal set after set.
As Ferrer said, he’s on the turf of Nadal, the five-time French Open champ. It will be up to Djokovic to show that he can start a turf war that the world will take notice of.
"The two matches that Djokovic won [at Indian Wells and Miami] were tight," Ferrer said. "Nadal could have also won the same way. And now comes the clay, where Nadal can deliver the best of his game and will have many more options."