From the beginning of 2005 to the end of 2010, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer batted Grand Slam trophies back and forth like tennis balls. They combined to win 21 titles (12 for Federer, nine for Nadal) over that span.
Only three Grand Slam Championships were won by other players (2005 and 2008 AO, 2009 USO). It felt like at the start of every tournament, one or the other would be the last man standing.
Going into the first major of this season, the Australian Open, people were projecting Rafa and Roger to face off once again.
They had good reason, too: Nadal was the winner of the past three Slams, and Federer was the defending champ in Melbourne.
Although Nadal was the slightly bigger favorite heading in, Federer had looked great in the tune-up, cruising to the title without dropping a single set. Fans were waiting for the second Sunday, so they could finally watch another Nadal-Federer epic.
Then, something funny happened. For the first time in 11 majors, neither Rafael Nadal nor Roger Federer were in the final.
The final instead pitted No. 3 Novak Djokovic, who had bested Federer in straight sets in the semis, against No. 5 Andy Murray, who had luckily escaped a match with Nadal, due to the fact that an ailing Nadal had lost the round prior to David Ferrer.
Djokovic won that title. Then another. Then another. Then another. Then another. Then another. Then another. Then another. He compiled a 48-1 record midway through the year. He beat Nadal and Federer eight times out of nine and became the No. 1 player in the world.
Following his win in Melbourne, he went on a torrid run through the hardcourt season. He beat Federer in Dubai and outlasted Nadal in a pair of tough three-setters during the American swing.
Most people thought that this run couldn't last, not on clay, Nadal's best surface.
But despite skipping the first event in Europe, Djokovic came back better than ever, crushing Nadal in two sets, in both Rome and Madrid.
Before this year, such a feat was unthinkable: beating Nadal twice in a row, on clay, in finals, in straight sets. Djokovic proved that he was the man to beat, at least at Masters 1000 tournaments.
Although order was seemingly restored when Nadal defended his French Open crown with another Grand Slam win over Federer, it still remained unclear weather or not Nadal would be able to defeat Djokovic (who had lost in an entertaining semifinals matchup with Federer).
Wimbledon was very highly anticipated. Two of the top four players, regardless of who they were, were almost assured to square off the in final. They were assured to put on a great show.
Of course, the crowd got what they wanted: newly crowned No. 1 Djokovic facing off against the defending champ Nadal.
From the first ball, Djokovic dictated the tempo. He overcame a minor blip in the third set to capture his third slam title: 6-4, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3. He proved that he was on top of the world, with three near flawless sets.
Now, how is it possible that in such a short span of time, Djokovic transformed from an inconsistent player with not enough mental strength to win late in Slams into the most mentally tough, not to mention talented, player on tour?
Well, there have been many explanations, coming from everyone including reporters, fellow players and the player himself.
I believe that there are many things have something to do with this turnaround. Here is a run-through of the main points.
- The most obvious, Djokovic is just now entering the prime of his career. He has trained very hard to keep on improving his tennis, and it is now paying off.
- His new, gluten-free diet has greatly helped his previous health issues, and thus made him able to keep up the high level of tennis for longer periods of time.
- With his improved contact lenses, perhaps he is "seeing" the ball more clearly, causing him to be able to attack better.
- He realized it is better to take risks, and going for the big forehand more often has created shorter points and many more winners.
- Continuous practice with the serve, a weakness just six months ago, has become a tremendous strength.
- His mental toughness is greatly enhanced by his belief in himself. Now that he thinks to himself that he can beat top players such as Nadal and Federer, he is finally doing so.
One of the more complex reasons: in early 2009, one year after he won his first major, Djokovic played for the first time with a Head frame. He was playing very solid tennis at the time, and the switch caused a bumpy road for about 18 months.
Now that he's settled down, and his body has matured, he is back to his late 2007, early 2008 form, except better.
Other players can learn very much from the top tennis player in the world. He realized what he needed to do to be the best he could possibly be. He worked on his weaknesses and quickly turned them into assets.
Nadal will definitely take something out of his opponent's rise. Finally, someone is beating him consistently, and from now until the US Open, his plan is simple: change my game in order to beat Djokovic (something Federer wouldn't do in order to beat Nadal for the past four years).
At this year's Open, only one thing is sure: it will be entertaining-as-hell.
Has Djokovic truly turned a rivalry into a tri-valry? No, he has turned a tri-valry into singular dominance by one player. His mother, Dijana, said it best: "For four years, it was Roger, Rafa, Roger, Rafa, now it's Novak, Novak, Novak, Novak."