Despite skipping the tournament, Novak Djokovic comes out of the 2015 Mutua Madrid Open a winner.
Andy Murray's stunning straight-sets win over Rafael Nadal on Sunday is a victory for Djokovic. It's another blow to the "King of Clay's" invincibility.
If Nadal suddenly looks quite beatable on clay, it's because he's been beaten rather recently and sort of regularly.
Nadal, winner of nine of the last 10 French Opens, has struggled this clay-court season. He failed to win a title in his last three clay-court tournaments. He lost to Djokovic in the finals at Monte Carlo. Fabio Fognini upset Nadal at Barcelona.
Murray dismantled Nadal 6-3, 6-2 to grab his first clay-court victory over Nadal. Murray became only the fourth man to defeat Nadal on clay in a final.
Even for a player as dominant on a surface as Nadal has been on clay, the doubts must be seeping in.
Meanwhile, for Djokovic, a man who has struggled with belief at Roland Garros, hope must be rising. This year, his nemeses—the king and clay—look conquerable.
How much easier must it be to slay a wounded dragon than one soaring above the kingdom torching everyone in sight?
When Djokovic previously faced Nadal in the finals of the French Open, the Serb was fighting the Spaniard's clay-court mystique as well as his mastery. The mystique has taken a hit. The mastery is still there, but Nadal's body is less cooperative.
These recent developments must bolster Djokovic's confidence.
After all, this year's run-up to Roland Garros looks different than ones from seasons past. Ranked No. 1 and now the favorite, Djokovic will still have pressure. However, Nadal's setbacks are mounting. They are no longer isolated incidents. A pattern has emerged.
Aware of the focus on his French Open-less resume, Djokovic spoke with reporters about how he's embracing the challenge.
"The question coming into each year: Is this going to be the year or not? That is the question present in my head, but it is not a question that is distracting me or bothering me," he said. "It excites me."
Nadal remains the King of Clay and reigning champion at Roland Garros. However, his kingdom suffered a series of attacks this season and his weaknesses are showing.
Like a landlocked kingdom being attacked from several fronts, Nadal has to fight back against his new-found air of vulnerability.
Djokovic still carries the burden of having never won at Roland Garros, but belief is half the battle. Watching Murray accomplish a "never done" feat against Nadal bolsters belief.
Now a rested, rejuvenated Djokovic arrives in Rome knowing that Nadal's clay-court dominance has been diminished.
For years, Djokovic has tried to figure out how to take Nadal out at the Roland Garros. Perhaps he no longer has to. Nadal has slipped to No. 7 in the ATP Tour rankings. That's the lowest he's been since May 2005. Maybe Murray, Fognini or even Kei Nishikori will end Nadal's run before the finals.
According to Bodog (h/t Odds Shark), Djokovic—"Mr. Never Won"—is favored to win the French Open over Nadal, a nine-time champion.
Until the 2015 Munich Open, Murray had never won a clay-court title. Until the 2015 Madrid Open, Murray had never beaten Nadal on clay.
Djokovic hopes to relish that first-time feeling at Roland Garros.