The ATP Masters Series 1000 Tournament in Madrid culminated yesterday, with not only a highly unexpected result in the grand finale, but also a rare domination over the King of Clay on his home turf. Novak Djokovic came through in straight sets to record his first-ever clay-court victory over world No. 1 Rafael Nadal.
The implications for the top three players, Nadal, Djokovic and Federer going into the remainder of the European clay-court swing, and beyond, are as follows:
The Serbian reached a few landmarks by winning the Madrid Masters final last night. He has now officially become the second-longest season-opening winning streak (32) holder behind John McEnroe (42), eclipsing Bjorn Borg's 31-match unbeaten run to start the 1980 season.
Djokovic has won his sixth ATP title on the trot, while also having downed Nadal and Federer thrice during the season already.
By winning for the first-time ever on clay against Nadal, Djokovic has surely sounded a warning that he is a changed man from his Chok-ovic tag of the last couple of years. He has also ensured that the run-up to Roland Garros will be extremely interesting, as against the Nadal-led procession we’ve all gotten used to.
In outplaying and out-thinking Nadal on his favorite clay surface, Djokovic showed us why he possesses the most-feared backhand and return-of-serve on the ATP tour today (he really should think about getting that backhand insured for a premium). He continued to "mentally disintegrate" Nadal throughout the match with his trademark cross-court two-handed backhand.
For Djokovic, going forward, the three wins over Nadal in finals surely must be a source of supreme confidence, especially his latest straight-sets victory on clay. Once Djokovic had gotten through a shaky first game, it seemed as if the match would be his to lose, as his unforced errors piled up following his double-break lead in the first set.
Djokovic also showed yesterday that the serve can make a huge difference when it comes to evenly matched baseline sluggers. Djokovic’s superiority in terms of points won on serve could be a difference in one of the most interesting clay-court swings ahead.
What Djokovic also showed yesterday, is that his backhand is way more consistent than Nadal’s, and he continued to pepper Nadal on the backhand side to draw out the errors. Djokovic had 12 more winners on the backhand side as against Nadal.
Djokovic is now only 1,805 points behind Nadal in the ATP rankings, and well ahead of Federer, which puts him in pole position to overtake Nadal as No. 1 in the summer.
For all the mental toughness that Nadal possesses, it seemed that he just ran into a more in-form opponent in the Madrid final. However, his mental frame of mind after a third consecutive finals defeat to Djokovic will be something to consider. But if anyone is mentally tough enough to bounce back from such adversity, it has to be the current world No. 1.
With the surface at Rome not as quick as Madrid, it seems that Nadal may be more of a favorite against Djokovic there. However, let’s not forget that Djokovic has also won the Rome Masters previously.
But the Madrid final proves that when coming up against a serve-returner of the caliber of Djokovic, Nadal needs an improved serve. It seemed as if in every Nadal service-game, Djokovic was in with a chance to break and kill the match off much earlier than the actual match-time.
What Nadal also needs is more consistency on the backhand side, as Djokovic mercilessly pounded away on that side to continue to draw the errors. Nadal can however, draw comfort from his forehand, which continued to look brilliant, be it on-the-run or inside-out.
If Nadal is unable to tame Djokovic in Rome (if they meet in the final again), it will be a huge psychological blow. It will also give others the hope of fancying their chances against his serve and his inconsistent backhand, which just doesn't flow as smoothly as the Djoker's.
Even against Federer, Nadal was having a bit of trouble in the first set when the Fed’s trademark passing shots were on song.
Nadal should be resigned to losing the No. 1 ranking to Djokovic in the summer, but should also be assured that if he can hold on to No. 2 by the end of the year, he is likely to be in with a great chance at No. 1 next year when Djokovic is unlikely to repeat his dominating performance again.
Roger Federer’s naysayers will probably grow louder after his loss to Nadal in the Madrid semifinals, but the reality is that he still remains competitive enough to pose that threat.
The first set comeback that he completed against Nadal in the semifinal was really down to some inspired shot-making not seen for quite some time from the Swiss maestro. His biggest issue, with age, now remains consistency and it seems unlikely that he will be able to outlast Nadal in a best-of-five match on clay.
However, Federer could yet have the last laugh on the grass courts of Wimbledon, because that seems like the only grand slam tournament he has a chance of winning this year.
If Roger Federer plays the level of tennis he played in the first set against Nadal at Madrid, he could be in with a chance of lifting his 17th grand slam trophy at Wimbledon. Apart from this chance, it seems that he may not be in the running for anymore majors. But it would not be beyond him to outlast Nadal or Djokovic at one of the hard-court best-of-three-set Masters Series tournaments.
Roger needs to come to peace with his current ranking, which should alleviate some of the pressure he feels when he walks on to court against Nadal or Djokovic. After all, even the great Pete Sampras had made peace with his ranking in the hopes of adding to his grand slam tally.