We will go through the match for you in a few ways, looking at what the numbers indicate, and our impressions of the actual match–the final of the men’s Italian championship from Rome–in which Novak Djokovic (above), truly to be heralded, defeated world #1 Rafael Nadal for the second straight time on clay, and the fourth straight time overall, in moving his overall record to 39-0 this year. Now Djokovic is in company with only two other men, Federer and we believe Gaudio, who have beaten Nadal twice on clay, and is the only one to do so twice in the same year.
We hate to go crazy for the Masters Series like this because we are purists and tennis historians who reflect on the years and achievements of players mostly by looking at results from majors, Davis Cup, and the Year End Championships. That said, they contested two finals in the last 8 days, both on Nadal’s surface, and Rafa did not win a set. Very rarely does the best clay court player in a season not win Roland Garros. Djokovic is the best clay court player this season, and even if he should not win there, he has arrived, and will be considered a better threat than Nadal to win there for the next several years. Guillermo Coria is one guy we can think of who had the strongest clay court season and did not take the major. John McEnroe, obviously, is another. We think Federer was the best clay court player in 09 when he completed his career slam.
Hate to jinx it, but we think Djokovic is gonna be the champ there the same way he was in Madrid and today in Rome. Djokovic may let him get a set in a final we are all set to book for 3 Sundays time, but he hasn’t let him get one yet, not even on Nadal’s home soil. This brings a lot of questions to mind. Nadal, the clay court god, has all of a sudden lost it? Isn’t he the “King of Clay”? He hasn’t lost “it” but he has lost that distinction. This is why I love the King of Clay, King of Grass, GOAT, and all of these other tennis nonsense conversations. None of these discussions can take place until long after these guys retire, unless we hold them out of the conversation and judge only players who are retired.
If we were to do that, we’d have to say Rod Laver is the best player of all time, that Roy Emmerson is very, very close, that Bjorg and Sampras, in no certain order, should probably come next in the discussion, and that just about everybody else is on a lesser tier. To Emmerson’s credit, he won 16 doubles majors, and won the French twice, but all of these guys, even the ones on the other tier, have immense major immeasurables or specific achievements that further enlighten their careers. Frankly, Djokovic doesn’t have any, but that’s not for this discussion. With the Djoker, he’s the best right now on clay and slow hards, and we’ll see about the rest soon enough.
But Nadal does not have the weapons to penetrate Djokovic any longer on clay, and scampering around from 15 feet back of the baseline and pushing the ball back is not going to get it done for Nadal against Djokovic any longer. The mighty forehand of Rafael Nadal went whole half hours today without producing a winner, as Djokovic easily won on the winner count today off both wings, hitting about 12 more winners, and winning 8 more total points. It was the difference in the match. The guy who could step up into the court and hit a winner is the guy who won. Nadal actually had an edge in net play that had he exploited better, he could have won. Only, how do you get to net when you are so far back of the court?
Unlike last week’s performance which we considered fairly dominant, considering the opponent, we thought that this week Djokovic looked more average. The fatigue was more apparent from the Saturday semi and from the week. And Djoker was walking gingerly all second set, and kept stretching out his legs, which our friend Robbie Koenig was saying was a hip flexor. Usually a great sign for an opponent–a gimpy Djoker. Only, these things don’t seem to matter anymore, like he’s superman, especially in the best of three set format. Djokovic got down in actual games, especially on his own serve, though he never actually trailed, but he played with the knowing confidence that when he had to, he was going to jack the ball and take the point from Nadal out of a haze of loopy topspin. This wasn’t done on serve, either. Djokovic served no aces. These were crushing groundstrokes, the likes we have not seen probably, since the Soderling run in 09.
Last week, Nadal can go in and not sweat too much, because he can still have the attitude that it’s one match, in case he loses. This week, Nadal knows all week that he’s gonna have to play much better to win, and that should be a big edge to him, but it’s not, and he’s even less of a favorite. Nadal stayed close with Djokovic the whole way, unlike last week when he was quickly down 4-0, but Djokovic just upped the level on the big points today, hit the groundies a little harder, a little gimpy or not. It’s still going to take a great effort to beat Nadal at
RG, but that’s Nadal after 6 more matches, this time of the best of 5 variety. We think it works against him poorly, and always does, when he plays too many essentially meaningless events.
Now do they really help him, long term or short? No, save for financially. Nadal, the master of Masters, has more shields than Federer, Agassi, Sampras. He has the most. But being the best week to week is not as important as being the best at the end of every season, which players thinking more about winning majors have in the forefront of their minds. For a guy who runs as much as Nadal, and who has wheels issues so much, the play should be to pick and choose, and that would leave him fresher for majors. A few weeks ago, Nadal plays Sabadell, wins it, ends up picking up a few points, which ultimately isn’t going to keep Djokovic from taking his ranking, and adds 5 matches and about 8 needless hours of court time to his joints.
We see him as tired going into Roland Garros, and more tired going into the final weekend. He could still win, and we’d respect that immensely. But either way, the guard has changed, and since we can not stand his passive pusher style, we think it an excellent thing. Now that doesn’t mean that Djokovic’s play translates exactly to grass next month, meaning Nadal will be a strong favorite on the lawns of Wimbledon. But we’d bet Djokovic will play very well on grass, and that his and Nadal’s extended period of excellence this year, winning or final-ling at just about every event, will take a toll during the dog days of summer, that a glider such as Federer might afford. Djokovic does do his share of pushing now, we might add.
As for the imeasurables, the Djoker might be about to get in the books. Today marked his 39th straight win from the start of the year. If he gets to the round of 16 at RG, he will have surpassed John McEnroe’s 42 matches straight from the year’s start, and by winning RG and his 2nd round match at Queen’s Club, he will tie Guillermo Vilas’ string of 47 straight wins to start the year.