Novak Djokovic: How He Managed to Upset Rafael Nadal on Clay

Gregory LanzenbergCorrespondent IMay 11, 2011

MADRID, SPAIN - MAY 08:  Novak Djokovic of Serbia is congratulated Rafael Nadal of Spain after the final during day nine of the Mutua Madrilena Madrid Open Tennis on May 8, 2011 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
Julian Finney/Getty Images

Who was not looking forward seeing the Rafael Nadal-Novak Djokovic match in Madrid on Sunday?
Not many for sure if we count all the tennis fans around the world.

Even if the match was not the classic encounter from 2009, which lasted four hours, it did not deceive if you are a Djokovic fan.

I am amazed to see Djokovic play on clay almost like he is playing on hard court.

I thought it would be a huge challenge for the Serb to overcome Nadal on the red dirt, but he did it the perfect way.

On that occasion, Djokovic claimed his 34th straight victory of the season as well as his first victory over Nadal on his beloved clay, which is a huge statement.

Everything has changed because of Nole's victory in the Spanish capital last weekend.

I don't buy the fact that altitude in Madrid favors hard court players. If you are Nadal and you won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open on much faster conditions, the clay of Madrid should not be an issue.

Therefore, Roland Garros is no longer promised to Nadal as it was at the beginning of the clay court season when he won Monte-Carlo and Barcelona.

Of course, the current world No. 1 already lost matches on clay before the start of Roland Garros—twice to Roger Federer and once to Igor Andreev of Russia.

Nevertheless, Djokovic's performance changed things psychologically. Before last Sunday's match, Djokovic beat Nadal in Indian Wells and Miami with the Spaniard winning the first set on both occasions.

However, the "Djoker" is the first player to have dominated the clay court king so convincingly on his favorite surface. This is because he found a way to control Nadal's lift thanks to his double-handed backhand, which is the best on the tour.

With the backhand, Djokovic can shorten the points on clay and therefore prevent Nadal from having time to set his forehand.

Djokovic can also control long rallies with his backhand and force Nadal to step back in the court. Djoker is not afraid anymore to battle more than 10 rallies because he knows he can change the direction of a point with the backhand when he decides.

Therefore, Djokovic's backhand is as good as Nadal's forehand. At the same time, the Serb's forehand is also very effective, but the Spaniard's backhand is average so Djokovic has now more assets to his game than Nadal, which is why he managed to have a straight set win over Nadal in Madrid.

Let's not forget also the confidence factor, obviously. Djokovic feels he is Superman at the moment since nobody has been able to beat him since the start of the season.

Actually, if Nadal did not play with his heart on the court, the scoreline could have been much tougher than 7-5, 6-4 as Nole started the match with a 4-0 lead in the opening set.

Later on in the set, Nadal found more depth with his forehand and managed to come back in the score. Nole was also lucky with two net calls in his favor when Nadal was serving to level the set at 6-all.

The confidence factor comes into play on key points—when serving for the set, the match, saving break points or managing to rally behind their opponents in the scoreline until the tie-break. Nadal was on the pressure while trying to level the set for a tie-break, but his first-set percentage dropped, and Djokovic just had to return deep to make the difference.

Nadal started the second set as if it was a new match, breaking Djokovic in the opening game only to lose his serve in the next one and then lose the second set and the match due to a weak serve.

Consequently, Nadal needs to work very hard on his serve over the next couple of weeks if he wants to save his French Open crown.

Nadal could lose his No. 1 ranking as soon as next week if he does not reach the quarterfinals of Rome. The fact is, it's just a matter of time before Djokovic becomes world No. 1.

I would not be surprised also if Nadal lost early in the Italian Open in order to save energy for the French.

Elsewhere, the five-set format in Paris brings a new question mark for Djokovic. Will his run in Madrid and Rome finish to hurt him physically? There will come a time when the Serb won't be at his best physically over the next couple of months. When will it happen?

Also, can Nadal ever overcome his mental struggle against Djokovic?

All these upcoming questions will be answered shortly, but one thing is sure.

Nadal is no longer the overwhelming favorite for Roland Garros.