The first stretch of the season has come to an end and Novak Djokovic remains on top of the men's tennis world. With today's 6-1, 7-6 (4) victory over Andy Murray, he successfully defended a Masters 1000 for the first time in his career, winning his 11th Masters overall and tying himself with the great Pete Sampras on the all-time list.
Djokovic stands as the clear winner after the first three months of the season. Not only did he win the most important title, the Australian Open, he also leads the year-to-date race ahead of Roger Federer, who sprinted away with three straight titles before falling to Andy Roddick this week in Miami.
Now comes the clay. Exactly a year ago, I asked whether Djokovic was ready to challenge Rafael Nadal on clay, despite an abysmal 0-9 head-to-head record against the Spaniard on clay. And I answered like this:
"As opposed to Federer, Novak is a grinder, who cherishes the long baseline rallies and is excellent in defense. His natural game is better suited for the clay courts than Federer's 'first strike and you're out attacking' style."
In Miami last year, Djokovic did the unthinkable. The player formerly known for his early retirements out-battled Nadal from the baseline, won more of the long rallies and looked to be the stronger and fresher man at the end of the match against a guy who is known for his stunning 14-3 record in five-set matches.
If Miami is anything to go by, Novak is not only able to stay with Nadal in the baseline rallies, but also able to dominate them when the rallies grow long. As good as Federer was and is, he has never been able to compete with Nadal in pure baseline tennis.
The longer the rally, the higher the likelihood of Nadal winning the point. This has been true against all players, including Federer, but is it also true concerning Djokovic?
The answer to that question will determine whether Djokovic will be a legitimate threat to King Rafa on clay.
I for one believed that he was ready to get his first clay win against the Spaniard in 2011.
As we all know now, not only did he get his first clay win, he also got his second, both in fairly straightforward straight-set matches sending shock-waves through the tennis world. And the basics of the argument have been proven across surfaces and three and five-set matches since then.
This year, Djokovic hasn't been as dominant and spectacular as he was in 2011. He's even lost two times already! At this point last year, Novak was already 5-0 against Fedal and 1-0 against Andy Murray. This year, he's only met Nadal once, and he is 1-0 against Fedal and 2-1 against Murray.
In two weeks' time, the players will meet in Europe at the Rafa Invitational Open, better known as the Monte Carlo Masters. Nadal has but one defeat at the tournament, in 2003 at the age of 16 to Guillermo Coria. A year later, he beat Coria in the final and he's won seven in a row at the event, a record for consecutive ATP tour titles.
Can a grown-up Rafa lose at Monte Carlo? He hasn't won a tournament in 10 months, so he could use a win. Then again, wherever Rafa's game is, he always seems to pick it up at Monte Carlo. Last year, he was without a tournament win for seven months when Monte Carlo came around. Did it matter?
What may be a minor cause for concern, however, is Rafa's knees. He handed Murray a walkover in Friday's semifinal to rest his knees. As I understand it, it was more of a precautionary measure rather than a serious injury, so it shouldn't hurt him too much.
Nevertheless, a setback is a setback and he needs every advantage he can get coming into Monte Carlo. Not only is Rafa without a tournament win in 10 months, perhaps more importantly he's gone almost one-and-a-half years without a win over Djokovic, losing seven straight finals in the process.
A win over Djokovic in the Monte Carlo final would be exactly what the doctor has prescribed for Rafa. But can he get it?
Djokovic is of course more than aware of what seven straight defeats will do to any player's mental state. And he's eager to keep that mental advantage going into the French Open, where he'll have the chance at a historic Novak Slam.
With Murray showing good clay form last year, where he tested Rafa in Monte Carlo and almost broke Djokovic's winning streak in Rome, the clay season is shaping up to be more competitive than usual.
Rafa and Djokovic are, of course, the favorites in every clay court tournament they enter until proven otherwise. But Federer has shown incredibly good form over the past six months; he will have a decent chance in Madrid and with the faster balls in Paris, as he did last year.
Moreover, Juan Martin del Potro is back at or near his best level, and he doesn't go down easy on clay as evidenced in last year's Davis Cup final. Finally, we have world No. 5, David Ferrer, whose game thrives on the red dirt.
It will be a surprise, and statement, if Novak goes through the clay season without losing to Rafa at least once. Then again, it depends on how often both of them make it to finals. Last year, we got used to seeing both of them on every final Sunday. This year has already been quite different in that regard. If they only meet once or twice, it is not unthinkable that Djokovic can keep his Rafa streak going.
But one win might very well be just what Rafa needs to get his confidence back against Novak and trust himself in the most important moments of the match.
And while Rafa hasn't been triumphant yet in 2012, there are signs of improvement hidden in the stats. One of the deciding factors in his seven straight defeats to Novak has been Novak's superior return game, where Novak, at times, almost breaks Rafa at will.
In 2011, Rafa won a lower percentage of his service games than in 2010, while winning a higher percentage of his return games. This year, he's a whole lot closer to his 2010 level service-wise, winning 87 percent of his service games and ranking 9th on the tour. In 2010, he won 89 percent and ranked 4th. In 2011, he won 82 percent and ranked 22nd (all numbers based on hard court matches). And his return stats in 2012 (30 percent) are still better than in 2010 (26 percent), though marginally worse than 2011 (32 percent).
Novak, by comparison, has won 87 percent of his service games this year; in 2011, he finished at 85 percent after being at 87 percent for most of the year. Those numbers should give hope to the Rafa fans.
The serve is not the most important weapon on clay. But it still matters, especially when facing a returner of Djokovic's caliber. Federer essentially won the French Open semifinal against Djoko last year by having a near picture-perfect serving day.
And the conclusion? This year's clay season could be the most competitive in years. It is by no means certain that Nadal will still be king of the castle in Monte Carlo in three weeks' time, especially if he faces Djoko in the final. But would you bet against him? Perhaps not.
But come the French Open, I do regard Djokovic as the mild favorite. That may change over the course of the clay season, but until Rafa shows he can beat him on clay again, Novak is the undisputed king of men's tennis and the slams in particular.
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