Djokovic unbeaten, but clay courts await
Two points from defeat, Novak Djokovic rallied Sunday to cling to his amazing unbeaten run. He defeated world No. 1 Rafael Nadal for the second time in two successive ATP Masters Series finals to win the Sony Ericsson Open 4-6, 6-3, 7-6.
The Serb was facing his first loss of 2011 when down at 5-6, 15-30 in the third set. He now has won 24 matches to start the year, one less than Ivan Lendl’s streak in 1986.
Djokovic lost the first set in the final at Indian Wells, too, but this was a closer, more dramatic encounter between the two best players in the world. It was significant that the Serb, known for suffering in hot conditions, came through on a day of 90-degree courtside temperatures to look stronger at the last gasp than his muscular and normally supremely fit opponent.
In fact, it was Nadal who seemed the more fatigued at the end. It was the Spaniard who made the more costly mistakes as this memorable duel in the sun drew to a climax on a wave of near hysterical support from a capacity crowd of 14,000 that, inevitably in Miami, was heavily pro-Spanish in its leanings. But there were knots of Serbs in attendance, too, so Djokovic did not feel lonely out there. When either player came up with extravagant winners, their efforts were noisily acknowledged.
It was a match that could have been classified as a classic had both men not made some wild errors that saw returns fly yards out of court, seemingly off straightforward shots. But nothing is straightforward when you are playing for a big title in this kind of cauldron with so much pride on the line.
Technically, too, the requirements of precision and split-second timing in windy conditions exaggerate the extent of errors when players are dealing with balls that whirr and swerve and spin to a degree that would leave the average club player helpless.
But it was the incredible angles created from flashing forehands and the unbelievable pickups from defensive positions that had the spectators bouncing up and down in their seats, awestruck by the athleticism on view. It raged on for more than three hours, and the outcome was still in doubt after the first five points of the tiebreak, all of which had gone against serve.
Nadal’s chance of victory probably disappeared when he produced his sixth double fault of the match to go 3-2 down after he had led 2-1 with a mini-break. One of those bad errors — on a backhand service return — gave Djokovic a 5-2 lead. Although Nadal saved two match points, Djokovic clinched his win with a forehand winner that left Nadal stranded.
It had not started that way. Djokovic went down two breaks to trail 1-4 in the first set. He acknowledged that his left-handed opponent had played better during the early exchanges.
“But then I found my rhythm in the second set and played well, especially on my service games,” Djokovic said. “It was one of the best matches I have played for a long time. I think everybody enjoyed it, even us playing. It was very close, and, up to the last stroke, we really didn’t know which way it’s going to go. I wanted to make him play an extra shot, not to give him a lot of free points and try to get some free points out of the serve, which wasn’t happening to start with.
"We both had to work — to work for each point, especially in the third set. It was an amazing final.”
The second set hinged on an early break in the second game when Nadal shanked a forehand on break point. He had a chance to break back immediately in the next game but put a forehand service return long. These were uncharacteristic mistakes and will give him some cause for concern.
Although both men were serving at a reasonably high level, both found themselves 0-30 down — Nadal twice and Djokovic once — as the third set unfolded. Throughout the final stages the Serb looked a little stronger and a little more adventurous. Djokovic was more inclined to use the drop shot and frequently got himself into winning positions at the net. But Nadal’s ability to whip majestic balls cross court off either flank kept the pair on even terms until the Spaniard got to within sniffing distance of victory in that 12th game.
After Djokovic netted a short backhand for 15-all, Nadal came up with a superb backhand cross winner to reach 15-30. But any chance of reaching match point went begging when he put a service return wide.
Tough to say about such a great fighter but, in the end, Nadal did not play well enough. The chances were there, and he didn’t take them.
It must be remembered that hard courts never have been the Spaniard’s happiest hunting ground. In matches against Djokovic, he is unbeaten in 11 matches on other surfaces. But he trails 9-5 against him on hard.
Everything, of course, will take on a different complexion in two weeks' time when Nadal gets back onto European clay in Monte Carlo, where he has proved himself totally invincible by winning the title for six straight years. Djokovic will be there, as will Roger Federer, so it will be fascinating to see if Djokovic can transfer his own incredible run onto a very different surface.
Afterward, Nadal confirmed what we had all suspected: He was out on his feet at the end.
"I had nothing left in my body at the end," he said. "It was very hot out there, and I was seriously tired. I sweat like crazy. Ten T-shirts today. But I love these kind of matches. For sure, I prefer to win, but . . . it's OK. What Novak is doing now is fantastic. Winning four big titles . . . he's playing with much confidence. He's a great champion. One thing, you can be sure, he's a very good tennis player."