Indian Wells win keeps Djokovic perfect

Two of the greatest male players ever, Roger Federer and Pete Sampras, came to Indian Wells at different times in their careers and had major winning streaks snapped.

But not Novak Djokovic, who continued his amazing 2011 by shocking No. 1 Rafael Nadal 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 in Sunday’s final of the BNP Paribas Open. The Serbian – who will overtake Federer for No. 2 on Monday – has won 18 matches in a row, the longest streak to start a season longest since eight-time Grand Slam champion Ivan Lendl won 25 straight in 1986.

The world knew just how rock-solid and powerful Djokovic was in winning the Australian Open, where he posted victories over Roger Federer and Andy Murray, but who would have thought a guy who had almost no time off in the offseason would be able leave Melbourne, crunch Federer again in the Dubai final and then come to the California desert and convincingly beat Federer and Nadal for the second time in his career?

Everyone can see how talented Djokovic is, but he’s never been the mark of consistency, even in 2008 when he also won both Australia and Indian Wells but lost matches in between. But this is a more mature Djokovic, one who doesn’t get overexcited and can stay the course. As Djokovic says, he doesn’t just hope to win matches against Federer and Nadal anymore, he believes he can.

“I am playing with a lot of confidence,” he said. “I’m feeling the ball well on the court. I’m very dedicated. I have a big will to win each match I’m playing in. So it will not stop here, definitely. I want to keep on going and keep on playing good tennis.”

It’s one thing to win Indian Wells again, but it’s another thing to go into the third set against two men who have combined for 25 Grand Slam titles since 2003 and out-fight and out-think them. Djokovic showed no nerves or lack of focus, whereas Nadal and Federer went into terrible skids in those third sets, unbecoming of their great résumés.

But Djokovic could sense midway through the second set that Nadal was stressed out in his service games, because the Spaniard couldn’t buy a big serve, only putting in 25 percent of his first serves. The same troubles continued in the third set, and Djokovic leapt on Nadal’s second serve while the Spaniard was so confused by his inability to do damage with his first serve that his entire game fell apart at the seams. That hardly happens at all to Nadal, but credit must be given to Djokovic for keeping the pressure on.

“I think I was too worried about my serve to play my best level from the baseline,” Nadal said. “Playing against Djokovic is impossible … with the second serve all the time. That’s why I lost six games in a row and what’s going on in my mind. Please put one first serve inside, so that’s what I was thinking. And after that, I start to think about the 6-0 in the third, so I was focused on trying to win a game.”

If you go back to Djokovic’s shocking loss to Jurgen Melzer in the quarterfinals of Roland Garros last year, when he was up two sets and then totally folded, it’s incredible how far Djokovic has come. He didn’t immediately revive, but after playing respectably but not great at Wimbledon – where he lost in the semis to Tomas Berdych – he sat down with his coach, girlfriend and family and thought about how he should approach his career, without as much stress and without a large group following him around at every stop. It would be Djokovic and coach Marian Vajda calling the shots, and the Serbian would become more professional about how he planned his daily routines.

After taking tough losses to Federer and Andy Roddick at Canada and Toronto, respectively, he came into the U.S. Open hungry and more aggressive. He went for his shots when he needed to, and only a spectacular effort from Nadal in the final was able to keep him from raising the trophy. His next big goal was leading Serbia to the Davis Cup title in December, and he achieved that. He hasn’t lost since, as his serve and forehand are much bigger weapons, he’s fast, he has monster returns, he is patient in his point construction and he can play both steely defense and ferocious offense.

With his ability to become more aggressive when he needs to, Djokovic has become a huge threat on every surface. That’s why he has put himself into the conversation as potential year-end No. 1 – and maybe, just maybe, become the first man since Nadal won Roland Garros in 2005 to seriously and consistently threaten the great Spaniard on clay.

Nadal, who beat Djokovic in the 2010 U.S. Open and at the ATP World Tour Finals, doesn’t see a radical change in his friend’s repertoire, just in how he approaches matches.

“One player cannot change in two months,” Nadal said. “I think he always was a fantastic player. But I think he didn’t play consistently for moments, because his serve last year and the year before wasn’t that good than what it was three years ago. But he changed it another time. He is serving well, and he started the season winning a Grand Slam, and if the player who wins a Grand Slam is very good, like him, (it) is very easy to continue playing well.”

Amazingly, after the match, Djokovic called Nadal the greatest player ever – even though with nine Grand Slam titles, the Spaniard is seven behind Federer and five behind Sampras. But Nadal has given Djokovic more problems than any other player (he still owns a 16-8 record against him) and perhaps that’s why, in full confidence he can’t imagine anyone being as formidable as the left-hander.

Nadal laughed when he heard the comment, thanking Djokovic but calling it “not true.” The Serbian, however, wouldn’t back off the statement.

“I think he’s the best ever because, even though he’s 24 years old, he has done so much already,” Djokovic said. “Many years in front of him to, I think even to overtake Roger in the Grand Slam trophies.”

Maybe someday, another player will say the same about Djokovic. But for now, he’s thinking ahead to the tournament in Miami. The last time he won Australia and Indian Wells in 2008, he flamed out in the first round of Miami. This time, at the age of 23, he feels more prepared for a frontal assault on the title and says he won’t get carried away by his success.

After that, he can stride into the clay court season – where Nadal will be defending 5,000 points from his four titles, including the French Open – and begin to chip away at the top spot.

Djokovic has proved a lot in the first two-and-a-half months of the season but soon will be walking onto Nadal’s favorite surface. Then we’ll really see whether he has improved to the point where he can take over the tour.