Novak Djokovic Beats Rafael Nadal in Rome: The Shift is Tectonic

AndersCorrespondent IIIMay 15, 2011

ROME, ITALY - MAY 15:  Novak Djokovic of Serbia in action during the final against Rafael Nadal of Spain during day eight of the Internazoinali BNL D'Italia at the Foro Italico Tennis Centre on May 15, 2011 in Rome, Italy.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

For the second week in a row, Novak Djokovic beat Rafael Nadal, aka the king of clay, in a clay Masters final. The score was a deciding 6-4, 6-4.

Prior to this season, Djokovic was 7-16 in his head-to-head with Nadal, 0-9 on clay and 0-5 in finals played against the Spaniard. In the past two months, he’s beaten Rafa four consecutive times in four finals, two of those contested on clay.

And whereas last week’s win in Madrid was somewhat anticipated—the clay was fast, the balls fly quicker due to the altitude, Nadal has never been at his dominant best in Madrid and Djokovic was playing pretty darn well—this week’s win is bound to send shockwaves through the tennis world.

When Djokovic won Miami and Indian Wells against Nadal, the notion was, let’s just wait and see how he does on clay. When he then won again in Madrid, there was the asterisk that the altitude made it play like an hard-court. Rome and the French Open would be the true test.

Now, he’s has won Rome and the French Open remains the last very big hurdle to climb to finish off what will then be something close to the best six months in the history of the sport.

And dethrone the king of clay from his beloved fortress at Roland Garros.

What must worry Nadal, his team and his fans is that the win was well-deserved. Djokovic not only won more points, but he also created the match and forced the action. He hit 26 winners to Nadal’s 15 and 32 unforced errors to Nadal’s 22. Djokovic had all the answers to whatever Nadal could bring and Nadal, as well as the rest of the field, must be asking themselves exactly what it takes to beat this guy.

Nadal came into the match with all the cards on his hand. It was Rome, where he had won five titles. The clay was slow clay, a surface where he has been close to unbeatable since 2005. The few times he’s been beaten, it has often been in combination with a tough match the previous day or with simply overplaying.

Moreover, this time Nadal was as rested as you can be after two weeks of tournament tennis. When Juan Martin Del Potro pulled out in Madrid, Nadal’s draw suddenly looked easy with Federer being his only challenge before the final. This week, the seeds in his side of the section have all fallen before Nadal got a chance to beat them down. Richard Gasguet provided some resistance until five-all in the first set in Saturday’s early semifinal, but after that it was all Nadal.

Djokovic, on the other hand, did not have an easy time getting to the Madrid final as he had to battle through two tough three-setters. This week, he ended up with a nightmare draw having to beat world No. 5, 4 and 1 on consecutive days to win the tournament.

Swedish Robin Söderling, slightly hampered by injury, was not able to put up much resistance. The same cannot be said about Murray who took Djokovic to a third-set tiebreaker in a three-hour-plus match, before Novak finally pulled through less than an hour before midnight. He looked tired from the second set and afterwards admitted he had been.

The only luck that went in Djokovic’ direction prior to the match was that the match got delayed three and a half hours due to rain delay. Did he need it? Perhaps. It certainly didn’t hurt his chances.

The really scary thing for Nadal to take from this match is that he was beaten for the fourth time in a row by the same player, who played well within himself.

When Jo-Wilfried Tsonga beat Rafa in straights at the 2008 Australian Open, he played the match of his life. When Robin Söderling took out Rafa in the fourth round the following year in the French Open, he played the match of his life.

Yesterday, Djokovic  played a good match, probably even a really good match, but he wasn’t flawless and he didn’t go for broke most of the time. He made mistakes like when he was up 0-30 in the middle of the second set and made four consecutive errors, one on serve. He was visibly tired, but managed to hang in there.

When a visibly tired opponent is ready to take down a fairly well playing, well-rested Nadal in straight sets on slow clay in Rome, I would argue we’re seeing something new and something akin to a tectonic shift in the tennis landscape.

Towards the end of the second set, a statistic showed that Nadal and Djokovic had won exactly the same amount of the points lasting eight strokes or more. Djokovic won more of the shorter points. Where can Nadal go with Djokovic? He can’t attack his backhand and he can’t attack the forehand either. 

He had some luck with drop-shots towards the end, but a match is not won on drop-shots alone and they’re harder to make against a completely fresh version of Djokovic. The real trouble for Nadal is that Djokovic won half of the points on Nadal’s serve and more than two thirds of Nadal’s second serve. If Nadal isn’t able to improve on that, he’s unlikely to beat Djokovic.

So, are we seeing a tectonic shift in men’s tennis?

Well, when Federer was asked in his post-semifinal interview after losing to Djokovic, whether Djokovic and Murray had overtaken him and Nadal, he said: let’s speak in six months after Wimbledon.

We still have the French Open and Wimbledon ahead of us and if Nadal and/or Federer should win those two, the Djokovic moment will invariably look slightly less significant.

Nevertheless, for the first time since 2005 Nadal is not the sole favourite for the French Open. As a five time winner of the trophy and a proven contender in the Slam format, he somewhat has the "right" to remain the favourite at Roland Garros. That said, I believe he is merely the co-favourite together with the man of the hour, or the past 39 matches, Novak Djokovic.

By now, Rafael Nadal really must be wondering: how on earth do I beat that guy? There are no easy answers to that question.