Is Novak Djokovic Ready To Battle Rafael Nadal on the Red Turf?

AndersCorrespondent IIIApril 4, 2011

KEY BISCAYNE, FL - APRIL 03:  Novak Djokovic of Serbia celebrates after he defeated Rafael Nadal of Spain during the men's singles championship at the Sony Ericsson Open at Crandon Park Tennis Center on April 3, 2011 in Key Biscayne, Florida.  (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Novak Djokovic is 24-0 against the field, and 5-0 against two of the greatest players of all-time. 

Those are his stats for this year and they are impressive by any standards. He is bagelling and breadsticking opponents in almost all his early rounds. He has come from a set down in best-of-three matches against the world No. 1 two times in a row and deservedly won the matches. 

In short, he is the best player in the world as of this moment. 

However, now we leave the hard courts and turn to the softer surfaces—clay, followed by grass. Can he keep it up? Will his winning streak continue? 

Well, the odds are on "no." Before we get carried away by Djokovic's 24 straight wins (26 if we count the Davis Cup in December), let us not forget that Rafael Nadal built his own little streak a year ago on clay.

Nadal had 22 straight wins, winning all the important tournaments and hardly conceding a set.

Both Nadal (32 straight wins) and Federer (41 straight wins) have enjoyed longer winning streaks than Djokovic's current streak. Nadal is, in my opinion, the best clay-courter of all-time and on clay he is one of the most dominant players on a particular surface of all time. 

Monte Carlo is next on the tennis calendar and this is the place, where Nadal usually finds his game, wherever it may be before Monte Carlo. He has won the last six tournaments there, a record for consecutive ATP titles.

Last year, after not having won a tournament for nine whole months and just having had tough semifinal losses in Indian Wells and Miami, Nadal rebounded at Monte Carlo.

Not only did he rebound, he completely destroyed the opposition, handing out bagels at will, including a 6-0, 6-1 win against Fernando Verdasco in the final. During the course of five matches, he only lost 14 games. If there was ever a dominant winner in a tennis tournament, Nadal was just that in last year's Monte Carlo.

If anything, he looks to be in much better form this time around, so he is still the overwhelming favorite at Monte Carlo.

Another factor we need to think of when we discuss the potential of Djokovic continuing his winning ways is his H2H with Nadal on clay. Djokovic is 0-9, having only won a mere three sets. Against Federer, he is 1-2.

Last year, both Djokovic and Federer had poor clay seasons as opposed to 2009, where Djokovic played competitive against Nadal in both Monte Carlo and in their legendary four-hour match in Madrid.

Do we have any past references to help predict how Djokovic will do this time around? Well, indeed we do. 

Roger Federer dominated the first quarter of the season in 2004-2007, including winning the Australian Open and the American double in 2006, his very best year. Yet, even in his very best year, he was not able to dethrone King Rafa on the red turf.

They met in Monte Carlo, in Rome and on Roland Garros and Rafa squeezed a win out every time, even after being down match point in the fifth set in Rome, a match which was just as good as their meeting two years later in Wimbledon.

So Federer, one of the greatest players of all time and the most dominant player in recent time was not able to consistently challenge or dethrone Rafael Nadal on clay even though Nadal at this point was in or around his teens, admittedly had a fairly one-dimensional game and, at best, an average serve.

And let us not forget, that Federer is not a bad clay-courter. Both him and Djokovic more or less grew up on clay and Federer is easily the second-best clay-courter of the last decade and probably in the top 10 of all time. Had Nadal not been there, Federer would most likely possess not one, but three, four or five French Open trophies.    

The stats and common reason thus seem to be pointing toward Novak Djokovic not challenging Nadal on clay. But stats are not everything. As opposed to Federer, Novak is a grinder, who cherishes the long baseline rallies and is excellent in defense. His natural game is better suited for the clay courts than Federer's "first strike and you're out attacking" style. 

In Miami, he did the unthinkable. The player formerly known for his early retirements out battled Nadal from the baseline and won more of the long rallies and looked the stronger and fresher man at the end of the match against a guy who is known for his stunning 14-3 fifth-set record.

If Miami is anything to go by, Novak is not only able to stay with Nadal in the baseline rallies, but also able to dominate them and stay there when the rallies grow long. As good as Federer was and is, he has never been able to compete with Nadal in pure baseline tennis.

The longer the rally, the higher the likelihood of Nadal winning the point. This has been true against all players, not least including Federer, in the past, but is it also true concerning Djokovic in the future?

The answer to that question will determine whether Djokovic will be a legitimate threat to King Rafa on clay.

I for one believe he is ready to get his first clay win against the Spaniard.

Will it happen? Hard to say, but the potential to be a genuine challenger in some of their clay matches is definitely there.      


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