Miami Masters 2014 Final: Nadal vs. Djokovic Preview and Prediction

Jeremy Eckstein@!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistMarch 29, 2014

Miami Masters 2014 Final: Nadal vs. Djokovic Preview and Prediction

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    Rafael Nadal vs. Novak Djokovic at the final of Miami's Sony Open is the 40th chapter in tennis' most important ongoing rivalry. Only the matchup is redundant because the No. 1 ranking and championship stakes continue to be factors nearly every time these two fighters meet.

    What's most interesting is the way this rivalry has evolved the past three years and how the twists and turns continue to produce new surprises and thrilling matches.

    On one side, King Novak sets up as the ultimate ball-striking machine but with the savvy and moxie to attack his Spanish rival with the weapons of his choice. He looks to call the shots and should be confident in taking this match.

    As always, El Toro Nadal will be hoping in his corner, eager to inflict his power and spin from anywhere on the court. He has the heart and belief to win big matches, but he must face down his most difficult competitor.

    It's merely another title on the line but both will come out swinging once again. Who will win the all important final point on Sunday?

Who Has the Historical Edge?

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    They are far from strangers as they meet for the 40th time in less than eight years. That works out at about five matches per year. This will also be their 20th meeting in a tournament final, and the 15th time in 17 matches they are meeting to decide a championship, all since Djokovic emerged as a truly great player in 2011.

    Nadal leads their career rivalry 22-17, but the last three years have seen both players compile mini-streaks against each other. Djokovic won seven straight titles from 2011-12, culminating in his marathon Australian Open title. Nadal then won six of seven meetings from Monte Carlo 2012 to the U.S. Open 2013. Djokovic won the final two meetings to end 2013, including the WTF title.

    Much of what makes this such a compelling rivalry is that they are both terrific on outdoor hard courts and clay, Djokovic with the edge in the former, Nadal in the latter. They are close enough that each match brings a new angle and compelling edge to their rivalry, and it's hardly predictable.

    Fittingly, the two warriors have been battling for the top two ranking spots for most of the past few years. They are champions who keep building new weapons, ideas and strategies to counter the other.

    With the Nadal-Federer rivalry now fading gracefully into the evening, the Nadal-Djokovic rivalry continues to blaze forth as if it were always high noon. There is no sign that this rivalry will abate anytime soon.

    We will examine some of these technical and intangible differences in the following slides.

Djokovic at the Miami Masters

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    Historically, Djokovic has performed well at Miami with three titles and a game well-suited to the slower hard courts and humid conditions. He has consistency, endurance and few weaknesses. Once again, he is showing this formula as he stalks the 2014 title.

    This year, the No. 2-seeded Djokovic has cruised through five matches by winning all six of the sets he has played. This includes straight-sets wins over Jeremy Chardy (2nd round), Tommy Robredo (4th round) and Andy Murray (quarterfinals). He also benefited by advancing through two walkovers, including in the semifinals.

    Djokovic has defended his serve well, facing only six break points in the three matches and saving four of those. He has played well in the lead, often settling for his high-percentage groundstrokes and playing with the kind of comfort that has made him so dominant the past three years.

    For instance, against Robredo, Djokovic rallied with only moderate pace, but safe depth. Robredo had more highlight shots but also chalked up 28 errors alongside his seven winners. Djokovic was steady with his pressure and pace, never having to call upon more high-risk shots. He finished with 19 winners and 21 unforced errors but clearly controlled the match. At times, his performance was so routine it was as if he were toying with Robredo.

    The Murray match was tight in the first set, but Djokovic was the better attacker. He also took advantage of Murray's poor serving which yielded only one ace and five double faults.

    Opponents who play Djokovic cannot just groove in easy second serves. Djokovic has taken advantage of his opponents' second serves. He has won 34 of 59 second-serve return points. This 58 percent success rate has been instrumental in keeping control.

Nadal at the Miami Masters

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    Incredibly, Nadal has never won the Miami Masters. He came closest in 2005 as an 18-year-old neophyte, but he dropped this fabled final versus Roger Federer after building a two-set lead and a 4-1 tiebreaker advantage. He lost the 2008 and 2011 finals, withdrew from the 2012 semifinals, and he did not play in 2013.

    Nadal crushed his first three opponents with little resistance. He vanquished former star Lleyton Hewitt (6-1, 6-3), hammered Denis Istomin (6-1, 6-0) and embarrassed Fabio Fognini (6-2, 6-2).

    His big test came from big-serving Milos Raonic in the quarterfinals. Nadal was shaky with two double faults in the first set's decisive game, but he rebounded to create several break-point opportunities. In fact, Nadal had more break-point chances (nine) than Raonic had aces (eight). He was able to stand far beyond the serving box and handle most of Raonic's pace, and Raonic rarely created difficult serving angles.

    Like Djokovic, Nadal produced a lot of success versus second serves. He won 60 of 99 points with second serve returns for nearly 61 percent.

    Nadal also benefited from a semifinal walkover. This was particularly important because it levels the rest time he and Djokovic have. Two days off before a final should leave both players with plenty of energy, film study and anxiety.

The Biggest X-Factors

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    The Serve: Both players understand that the other can hurt him a lot on second serves. The first way to prevent this problem is a high percentage of first serves, including timely aces and service winners. In the 2013 U.S. Open, Nadal was successful with a very high percentage of first serves that had effective varieties of spin and location. He will need a similar effort versus Djokovic.

    Djokovic must find effective serving angles to take away Nadal's positioning beyond the baseline. He will likely look to serve out wide on both sides and use the opposite corner for his follow-up stroke. This could pull Nadal too wide and cause the Spaniard to run more than he would like. It would likely set up Djokovic to return more short balls.


    Fast Start: Djokovic has a way of getting psyched up to face Nadal. He is the one player who consistently matches Nadal's intensity and at times exceeds it. Fast starts particularly galvanize Djokovic, but they also favor Nadal. The winner has won the first set in nine straight meetings.


    New Look: Last year, Nadal attacked Djokovic's forehand in the Montreal semifinals. It was an effective blueprint for his run to the U.S. Open title. He used flatter backhands to the deuce corner and did not simply lob topspin forehands to Djokovic's ready backhand.

    Djokovic countered in the fall with a more efficient forehand and was more adept with offensive pressure and fewer errors. The pace of the faster courts clearly favored him in this matchup, but he will be ready for this adjustment once again in Miami.

    Which player will effectively flash a new strategy?

Nadal Will Win the Title If...

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    Nadal is one of tennis' great problem solvers, and it's his matchups with Djokovic that have sent him to the laboratory most often. Given time and planning, he has shown the capacity to strengthen weaknesses and to enhance his aggressiveness on hard courts. In order to defeat Djokovic, he must succeed with the following:

    1. The backhand must be an offensive weapon. Last summer, he was able to hit it flatter and harder in Djokovic's deuce corner. This has the effect of pressuring the Djokovic forehand and not allowing Djokovic to pick up slow-rolling topspin.
    2. He must use a high percentage serve to keep Djokovic guessing and set up forehand returns. Nadal cannot expect to serve and get into too many long baseline rallies. The Serbian's more dependable backhand and consistent rhythm can make it difficult on Nadal's serve if he cannot set up easy points each service game.
    3. Step into the baseline whenever possible. If he gets complacent with his high topspin, short balls will be smoked. It's imperative that he vary the pace and spin with his forehand.
    4. Be unpredictable just enough to keep the Serbian guessing. Backhands down-the-line and run-around forehands with high topspin to the forehand could help him control the deuce alley rather than get pinned there.

    Above all, Nadal must stay in his zone throughout the match. He is the best at forgetting a bad point and rallying back but a fast start would certainly set the tone. Everybody knows about Nadal's mental toughness, but even he must call upon this confidence all over again when adversity strikes. Every match with Djokovic has a slightly different shade of color.

Djokovic Will Win the Title If...

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    Djokovic has a ton of respect for Nadal but he looks forward to their battles. His belief and concentration are high against the Spaniard and he can be relentless. He knows that his best tennis will beat Nadal, but he must still control the following areas to win:

    1. Break out his efficient forehand. This doesn't mean he needs to hit crazy winners but to play the percentages, attack the short ball and not give away silly errors. For some reason, when his forehand gets loose, the errors come in bunches, missing the lines and sailing long. Lethal is good, but the control is most crucial.
    2. Destroy the short balls Nadal hits. This is still the way to get Nadal in trouble. Any Nadal floater that cannot reach the baseline could become a clay pigeon from either side. The way to create the short balls is to keep Nadal pinned back and playing defensively.
    3. Win the ad court angles. His backhand creates wonderful angles, but he must be ready to attack either corner with it. The key is to keep Nadal scrambling like Andy Murray so that more shots are reactive rather than proactive. If both players have time to set up and trade shots, Nadal is usually more efficient and less prone to errors.
    4. This is not the time to try Coach Boris Becker's approach to come to net more. What we have seen with that is more indecisiveness. If Djokovic is tempted to come in too much rather than work the rally, Nadal will love having a target. Net approaches should be sure things in this match, because Djokovic has every reason to ride his confidence in the baseline game.

    The longer the match goes, the more it figures to favor Nadal. For one, Djokovic's three wins since the Australian Open in 2012 have come in straight sets. When he gets on a roll and establishes his best tennis, he confidently finishes the job.

    If it does go three sets, Djokovic will need to clean up shaky points at ill-advised times. His infamous overhead smashes at the 2013 Roland Garros semifinals is one prime example but so was the weak tiebreaker at Montreal. Is he ready to win another close encounter with Nadal?


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    This match has huge implications for the future of the No. 1 ranking. If Nadal wins, he adds 1,000 points to his ranking and moves 490 more points ahead of Djokovic (who would net 510 points from last year). Then Nadal could look to recapture Monte Carlo and push back Djokovic again.

    If Djokovic wins, he slices further into Nadal's ranking lead by adding 910 points to Nadal's 600 for a 310-point Djokovic climb.

    The match has a swing of 800 points. Nadal will either lead by 2,720 points on Monday, or he will lead by 1,920 points.

    While any player would love a fast start, the finish is the ultimate decider. Djokovic must prepare this time to finish off a war with Nadal. He will not have the quicker courts at Beijing or London to take away more time from Nadal. Instead, it could be halfway to a clay-court match with the slower surface and thicker air.

    More things have to click just right for Nadal to win at Miami and it's still been one area he has not conquered. Right now, Djokovic is on the upswing again and he will be tough to beat.

    Djokovic will have to earn one of his toughest matches against Nadal by winning big points down the stretch. He gets our edge in three sets this time around.

    It has the makings of a thriller and we just might get it.