A year ago, Rafael Nadal was on top of the tennis world. He’d just polished off Novak Djokovic in the U.S. Open final, capping off a spectacular year in which he also won the French Open and Wimbledon and secured the number one ranking.
Fully recovered from the knee injuries which plagued him in 2009, he distanced himself from his arch nemesis, Roger Federer, who at age 29 was clearly on the downside of his career, and reasserted his dominance over Djokovic, the other threat to his throne. Still just 24, the Spaniard seemed poised to reign over men’s tennis for the next few years.
Djokovic always had as much talent as Nadal, but hadn’t been able to break through against two of the game’s all-time greats, Federer and Nadal. His arsenal included a powerful and accurate serve, an excellent return of serve and a dangerous forehand, but his backhand was inconsistent. In his matches against Federer and Nadal the deciding factors were often stamina and confidence. Federer and Nadal had them and Djokovic didn’t.
Tired of finishing second or third, Nole used last offseason to revamp his body and his game. He worked on his backhand and adpoted a gluten-free diet, which improved his stamina. His confidence seemed to follow. The new and improved Djokovic made his debut at the 2011 Australian Open, where he desposed of Federer in straight sets in the semi-finals, then easily defeated number four seed Andy Murray for the championship.
His victory at the Aussie Open was just the beginning of what will go down as one of the greatest seasons in the open era. The Serbian came within a hiccup in the semi-finals of the French against Federer short of the Grand Slam. He’s lost just two of his 66 matches and in July took over the number one ranking.
The French was Djokivic’s only loss to Federer this year in five meetings between the two. Last week he came back from 2 sets down and fought off two match points to defeat the former world’s number one in the semi-finals at the U.S. Open. This time it was Federer who grew visibly fatigued as the match wore on.
Two days later Nole beat Nadal in the final for his first U.S. Open title. Prior to this year, Nadal had a 16-7 edge over Djokovic and was 5-0 against him in tournament finals and 5-0 in Grand Slams. This year the two have met six times, all in tournament finals and Djokovic has won them all, including the finals of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Two of the matches even took place on clay, Nadal’s best surface.
The Djoker didn’t just win those matches, he beat Nadal decisively. He took out the defending champ in four sets at Wimbledon and Nadal barely eked out a tiebreaker at the Open. Nobody has ever pushed Nadal around the court the way Nole did Monday night. Nadal admitted after Wimbledon that Djokovic is in his head and he appeared uncharacteristically unsettled on the court during their latest match.
The challenge for Djokovic now is to maintain his focus and desire. It’s easier to get to number one than to stay there. The potential distractions multiply, there’s to prove and he’s now being hunted by all the other top players on the tour. John McEnroe, the last male to produce a season comparable to Djokovic’s, when he went 82-3 in 1984, admitted that he became distracted by his celebrity status, and was never nearly the same player again.
History indicates that it will be nearly impossible for Nole to duplicate his sensational season, though assuming he remains healthy and focused, he may continue to rule men’s tennis for the foreseeable future. Federer is in his 30′s now and Murray lacks the firepower and fortitude to knock off the big boys. Nadal is the one man who can challenge him for that number one spot, at least until a new young champion bubbles up.
Nadal is just one year older than Djokovic. He’s a fierce competitor and has at least one weapon, his whip-like forehand, which can hurt the Serbian. But other aspects of his game were exposed in the U.S. Open final, most notably his first serve, which lacked the zip that was so effective during his 2010 U.S. Open run, leaving him vulnerable to Djokovic’s devastating returns. While his backhand is more than adequate against almost everybody else on the tour, he’s not able to match the hummers down-the-line that Djokovic unleashes on him.
Nadal has vastly improved his game before. The “King of Clay” learned to flatten out his strokes on faster surfaces, allowing him to finally beat Federer at Wimbledon, and an additional 10-15 MPH’s on his first serve got him over the hump at the U.S. Open last year. Now he needs to continue you work on his serve, add a little pop to his backhand and learn to take the ball on the rise against Djokovic in order to dictate the tempo of the points and keep his rival on the defensive.
Nadal and Djokovic are two superb champions with the potential to echo the great rivalries of Borg-McEnroe, Sampras-Agassi and Federer-Nadal. Players of their caliber usually bring out the best in each other. Rafa’s stellar 2010 campaign forced Nole to take his game to another level. Djokovic countered with the most dominant season in recent memory. It’s Rafa’s move.