The future of men's tennis: Nadal (left) and Djokovic (right) have developed a compelling rivalry
Once again we can make use of the famous monikers "Djoker" and the "King" when it comes to the top two of the ATP Tennis hierarchy. This week's ATP Masters 1000 tournament on Madrid's high-altitude red dirt is likely to be the most anticipated one among tennis fans for some time. High expectations of an electrifying climax are more often than not fizzled away, but this week brings two of the hottest streaks in tennis as the main storyline behind the action.
After winning his hometown Belgrade 250-pointer, Novak Djokovic now stands 27-0 for the current season, while Rafael Nadal's Barcelona conquest takes him on a 34-0 run on his most-favored surface, the red clay.
One of these two streaks (or possibly both) is going to end this week, and tennis fans will be anxious to see who blinks first. The grand finale can only occur if both men hold true to their seeds, and meet in a mouth-watering duel next Sunday to finally set the tone for Roland Garros.
Djokovic's withdrawal from the Monte Carlo Masters and both players' compulsions for making their home-country small tournaments mean that the two have yet to enter a clay-court tournament together this year. However, Madrid is where it's at, and Djokovic can probably draw confidence from already having won a clay-court tournament this year (Belgrade) and having had the mental fortitude to come out on top against Nadal in finals at Indian Wells and Miami despite losing the first set on both occasions. However, the fact that this is Nadal's favorite surface ups the ante significantly.
History, along with the weight of expectations, definitely rests on Nadal's side, with the world's highest-ranked tennis player in his comfort zone on clay. He has heard all the talk about Djokovic being the hottest player on the ATP Tour and absolutely poised to wrest away the Spaniard's No. 1 ranking. Nadal would be itching to set the record straight if the two meet in the final at Madrid.
Novak Djokovic, on the other hand, can certainly make a case for being the most-improved player on the ATP Tour this season, despite only moving up one ranking spot. His mental toughness, conquest of on-court ailments, and development of his serve as a weapon seem to have been the final ingredients in the making of a champion tennis player that people doubted resided within him.
Both play a bruising baseline game, with Djokovic probably the more comfortable of the two when the situation demands being pulled up to the net. However, Nadal's monster top-spin forehands have made mince-meat out of even the great Roger Federer on plenty of occasions on clay.
The key to the battle probably lies with who remains the fittest at the end of the week if the two are to meet to settle the issue of the winning streaks once and for all, as against developing feet of clay in the earlier rounds.
Several clay-court specialists lurk within the draw to take advantage of any slip-up from Djokovic if he doesn't bring his A-game to the court. We saw how tough things can be if Djokovic is not feeling 100 percent on-court when Feliciano Lopez nearly eked out the first set in the Belgrade final against the world No 2.
Whose streak do you think will end at Madrid?
The likes of David Ferrer (twice finalist in clay-court tournaments this season), Nicolas Almagro, Juan Martin Del Potro and even the great Roger Federer and Andy Murray might have something to say on-court to upset the apple-cart for either of the two form-players.
If form holds, and the two meet, it would take a very brave man (or woman) to bet against Nadal taking his clay-streak to 39. The Djoker's Wild for Novak possibly lies in the knowledge that he came very close to his first victory on clay against Nadal a couple of seasons ago, despite not being in the form he finds himself in this season. Also, Andy Murray's out-of-the-blue taking of a set off Nadal at Monte Carlo, may have given him ideas to prepare a game-plan.
What it seems like, in all honesty, is that Djokovic's streak will stop at 31, as the Mallorcan Matador pulls out all the stops in his bag of tricks to tame the Serbian.
However, Djokovic, his team and his fans should still feel proud at the end of the week, even if the streak stops at 31, for having produced the second-longest streak to start a tennis season (with a Grand Slam victory included). All this, while having a significant amount of fun (see Youtube videos of Tipsarevic & Co. impersonating Djokovic and his team and Novak's latest Head commercial where he plays tennis on the wings of a flying aeroplane).
Here's to the Madrid Masters final everyone is hoping for, and the development of the Raf-okovic rivalry into a more even and fierce one when compared to the Roger and Rafa show. This one already has a couple of things going for it with the two competitors being much closer in terms of age, and in terms of playing styles as well.
Let the Clay Wars begin!