He did it again. Serbian Novak Djokovic beat Rafael Nadal for the third consecutive time in the pairs latest three finals in two months time. Two winning streaks came together; Nadal's 37 consecutive wins on clay or Novak's 31 consecutive wins on any surface. In the end, it was Rafa's streak that had to give way to the Serbian model of consistency.
Not only did Novak beat Rafael Nadal; he did it on the Spaniard's home turf—the clay-courts in Madrid. Mind you, prior to the start of this season, Novak was 0-5 in finals against Nadal and 0-9 on clay. Now, he's 3-5, 1-9.
There's a new sheriff in town and he ain't going away.
Beating Nadal on clay is a monumental effort on any given day. The Spanish bull has lost precious few matches in the past seven years and in most, if not all, of these matches, his fans can find reasons for the loss. In this respect, the loss to Robin Söderling in the 2009 French Open is explained by a knee injury, the loss to Federer in Madrid the same year is explained by a long semifinal against Djokovic and the Hamburg loss to Federer a couple of years earlier is explained in the same way.
This time, however, there are no excuses. The Djoker won it fair and square. Nadal may have put it a bit too harsh, when he said: "The No. 1 ranking is not in danger—it's finished. Let's not lie to ourselves, that's the reality," but he is right in the sense that Novak Djokovic is the best player in the world at the moment—by a mile."
When he's able to beat both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal three times in a row calling him anything but the best player in the world would seem odd. Nevertheless, Nadal is still the world No. 1, defending champion of three slams, in his prime and not done by any means. Before lunging into speculation about the rest of the clay season, let's take a look at what it is that enables the Serbian No. 1 to get the better of the world's No. 1 player time and time again.
Not many male tennis players make it to the top of the sport without a good or very good serve. Nadal did. When he got to the No. 2 in the world, his serve was worse than the best female players' serves and below average on the men's tour. That speaks volumes about how good he was at the rest of the game. Once a rally was in neutral, nobody—but nobody—was more likely to win it than Nadal.
He was by far the best rally-player in men's tennis.
That title can no longer be given to him with any degree of certainty. What must hurt Nadal and all his fans is that Djokovic is beating Nadal by being better at Nadal's own game. It was once a truism to say that the longer the rally goes, the likelier it is for Nadal to win it. Against Djokovic, he's losing the majority of the longer rallies.
The advantage he has enjoyed throughout his career, that is being able to outlast and outplay his opponent from the baseline, has vanished while facing Djokovic.
Normally, when Nadal plays his forehand cross-court he'll be on top of the rally. Not so against Djokovic. Notice the ease with which Djokovic goes for and hits a straight winner down the line at 0-3, 0-30, Nadal serving. That's the kind of problem Djokovic presents to Nadal. Djokovic cross-court backhand to Nadal's forehand, normally not the wisest tactic in tennis, was utterly effective and created short balls for Djokovic to prey upon.
And if Nadal tries to go for Djokovic' forehand, his hopes are not much higher. While not as good as Nadal's and Federer's forehand, it is miles above Andy Murray's and more than capable of finishing off a rally.
In short, Djokovic has no weak wing that Nadal can attack.
Add to that, that Djokovic's defending skills are on pair with the Spaniards at the moment and you see the problem that Nadal faces. Djokovic has become the kind of human wall that Nadal has always been, forcing the opponent to go for the lines if he is to hit a winner, because the Djoker retrieves so well.
The mountain seems already high to climb for the world's No. 1, but the analysis of the matchup is not quite complete.
Nadal is famous for his never-say-die attitude and mental toughness. No match is lost before the last point played, no point is won before the last stroke hit. Djokovic, a player formerly presenting a question mark as to his mental fortitude, has now emerged as a winner, who finds his best tennis in adversity and under pressure. Notice how he won the first two finals this year against Nadal coming from a set down. Notice how he won yesterday's first set even after Nadal made a forceful comeback. And notice how he broke Nadal right back after Nadal broke Djokovic 1-0 at the start of the second with the help of the shot of the match.
The Djoker is no longer a quitter.
Add to all of the above that Djokovic is at pair or better than Nadal with respect to the two most important strokes in tennis: the serve and the return of serve. As to the latter, there can be no doubt that Djokovic is the best returner in the game right now and probably the best since Andre Agassi. Against Nadal, he's able to attack on both first and second serves, leaving Rafa will little room to breathe. In Madrid, he won a whopping 44 percent of Nadal's first serve and 61 percent on the second.
The 23-year-old Serbian has struggled with his serve for the past years, but has managed to revitalize it and find back to his old movement. At the very least, Djokovic's serve is on pair with Nadal's. But I would say it is slightly better, given him more free points and giving him a better position in the ensuing rally.
Now if Djokovic is better at returning, as good or better at serving and as good or better in the long rallies, it is no wonder why Rafa is on a three-match losing streak to Novak.
That said, it is well-known that the clay-courts in Madrid presents the greatest clay challenge to Rafa. He's lost to Federer here and had two fairly narrow wins against the Swiss. Once we hit the slower clay in Rome and Roland Garros, the true king of the clay courts will reemerge, it may be argued.
And that is certainly possible. After all, who are we to bet against a man who lost the his first clay court match in two years to a player who, by his own admission, played the match of his life on the surface?
It is entirely possible that the slower clay will provide more comfort and success to Nadal as it has done in the past. But if my analysis is correct and stays correct on the slower clay, Nadal does not only face a problem, but the most serious contender to his clay court thrown since he became the king of the dirt.
The fundamental question is whether Djokovic is able to not only stay in, but also dominate and win, the majorities of the longer rallies. The slower clay will enhance Nadal's retrieving skills and makes the rallies even more gruelling.
But is longer, more gruelling rallies still an advantage against Djokovic 2.0? I'm not so sure anymore.