Tennis: Djokovic Downs Nadal for Miami Crown, Keeps Perfect Record Intact

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Tennis: Djokovic Downs Nadal for Miami Crown, Keeps Perfect Record Intact
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A dogfight. A war of attrition. An instant classic.

Call it what you will, Novak Djokovic's gutsy 4-6 6-3 7-6(4) triumph over Rafael Nadal in the final of the Sony Ericsson Open will go down as one of the Serb's finest victories of his career.

The three hour, 21 minute win extended the world No. 2's season record to a flawless 24-0 (26-0 including Davis Cup).

The final had all the makings of a memorable clash: A man with an unbeaten start to the year, gunning for a fourth title in a row.

His opponent: The tour's top player, title-less since October and seeking revenge after a deflating defeat in last week's final.

Factor in a frenetic crowd, unwavering heat and a prestigious trophy up for grabs, and it's no surprise the match came down to the wire.

"It was one of the closest and best finals I played ever," Djokovic said in his post-match press conference. "Of course [Nadal] is [the] No. 1 player in the world, and at this stage he's always playing his best."

But for the second straight championship in a row against the Serb, Nadal couldn't produce his normal brand of high-level tennis on a consistent basis. He struggled at times on serve, winning 45 percent of his second serve points and smacking six double faults—including a pivotal one at 2-2 in the tiebreak.

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He succumbed time and time again to Djokovic's favored dropshot-lob combination. He seemed tight and tentative with the backhand for the majority of set three. And, strangely enough, he was feeling the effects of the heat more than his opponent.

The most physical specimen tennis has ever seen—hunched over and out of breath after many late-match rallies? Guess he's mortal after all.

"I think I didn't play as well as I did during a lot of moments of this tournament today," the Mallorcan said afterwards.

"I was a little bit more tired than usual during the match, that's true. But in general, that's everything [that] I said is part of the game...sometimes you win, sometimes you lose."

Sometimes he'll lose, but he'll make his opponents work incredibly hard for the win. Just like Sharapova on Saturday, Nadal fought 'til the bitter end despite not firing on all cylinders. His steely desire to win is why the match ended in such close fashion—and why many had pegged him to finally end Djokovic's unbelievable streak.

Not too bold a claim, considering Nadal's ranked No. 1, digs the heat and soaks up Miami's Latin flair. Plus, the form he showed in picking apart Roger Federer's game during their much-anticipated semifinal boded very well for Sunday's bout.

But what ended up unfolding in Crandon Park was a surreal test of nerves; a battle of guts and glory. Because as enthralling and intriguing as the tennis was, it wasn't too pretty of a match—neither guy was at the top of their game, peaks which we rabid tennis fans have come to witness and enjoy thoroughly.

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They combined for 72 errors, several of which came in a sloppy, topsy-turvy first set.

Even in capturing that opener, Rafa's strokes were tighter than a Miami muscle shirt. He stayed pretty tense throughout the three hours, admitting just as much in his press conference afterwards.

Djokovic, meanwhile, seemed to loosen up just when it mattered most: the third set. He ran Nadal ragged along the baseline with pinpoint accuracy, escaped from a 5-6, 15-30 hole in the third with some great power play and clinched the title with a perfect cross-court forehand winner.

He simply played the important points with more determination.

It's this sheer determination that's made the Serb's unbeaten run something of lore, a beautiful sight to see after struggles with his game last season.

What's truly incredible about Nole's performance this year is how it seemed to sneak up on seemingly everybody, except for him. Like many of the top men, he had a very short offseason (famously helping Serbia capture its first Davis Cup). Yet he arrived Down Under energized as ever, salivating at the prospect to capture a second Slam.

Completely vanished were any yips on serve and on court against his biggest rivals. The confidence he's shown since that win Down Under is palpable — how interesting that he was able to make Nadal nervous throughout the Miami final. Tough stuff, taking into account the Spaniard had a 16-8 edge in their head-to-head prior to the bout.

What's also stunning is Djokovic's miraculous return to top health. This is a guy who, a few seasons ago, would retire in the middle of matches citing breathing problems—not so today.

To outlast Nadal while playing in such muggy and pressure-filled conditions is a true sign of how hard he's worked to maintain such a high level of play.

"For these matches, you really play this sport," the Serb said. "You know, to play [the final], three and a half hours against the best player in the world, you know, it's incredible achievement for me. So I'm very proud of today's performance."

A performance that, no doubt, will set up a very intriguing clay court season.

Can Djokovic keep his week streak alive as he attempts to conquer a new surface and new challenges? Will Nadal ever succumb to a foe on clay? How will Roger Federer factor in when the top pros hit the dirt in the next couple weeks?

All of those questions are mysteries now, but one thing is for certain: Novak Djokovic is at the peak of the tennis world.

As his felled companion said after the match today: "When you're winning, it's easier to keep winning."

Let's see if the Serb can keep that streak alive.

 

Quick Facts:

  • Like Sharapova, Nadal is now 0-for-3 in Miami finals. He fell to Federer in an epic five-setter in 2005 and lost convincingly to Nikolay Davydenko in 2008.  
  • Djokovic plans on playing Monte Carlo, Belgrade, Rome and Madrid in the upcoming months. Very ambitious. He did the same thing last season—but last season he wasn't off to a hectic 24-0 start.
  • Djokovic is the fourth player since 1990 to capture the Australian Open, Indian Wells and Miami tournaments all the in the same year. It's also the first time since 1995 that the same two players competed in both the Indian Wells and Miami championship rounds.
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