Novak Djokovic denied his Spanish rival Rafael Nadal his eighth title in Rome today when he managed a come-from-behind victory in three grueling sets (4-6, 6-3, 6-3). This win marks the fifth conquest in a row over Nadal for the Serbian, and all of them have been in finals. Despite the world number one’s dominance over much of the rest of the field, it appears Novak Djokovic has Rafael Nadal’s number.
In 2011 when Novak Djokovic began his amazing run of forty-three straight unbeaten matches, Rafael Nadal was ranked number one. That year saw Djokovic usurp Nadal at the top of the game by winning ten titles, including three majors at the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the US Open.
Beginning with the 2011 final at Indian Wells, Djokovic defeated his rival six straight times, all in finals, and became the world number one on July 4 2011. His victories over the Spaniard included the finals of Miami, on his beloved red clay in Madrid and Rome, Wimbledon and the US Open. Djokovic then began his 2012 campaign by defeating Nadal again, for the seventh straight time, in the longest grand slam final in history (five hours and fifty-three minutes) at the Australian Open.
Confidence and how a player deals with pressure are a huge part of tennis, and the psychology of the game often determines the outcome. When it comes to huge moments, Novak Djokovic has shown he is not intimidated by the left-handed clay court king. His victory over Nadal in Rome today was the second time Djokovic conquered him in the Eternal City (also in 2011).
When Roger Federer was dominating the men’s game, Rafael Nadal was the only true opponent he could not handle. Just as Nadal had Federer’s number, Djokovic has got Nadal’s. The strange and fascinating dynamics of the sport and its rivalries are what make it so interesting, and are truly good for the game.
Rafael Nadal has had a rough clay court season (by his standards) with early exits in Monte Carlo and Barcelona. Victory in Madrid last week was a welcome return to the winner’s circle, but did not clear up the doubts that have crept into his game. Meanwhile Djokovic has been closing the gap between himself and the number one ranking with victories this year at Indian Wells and Miami. Djokovic could claim the top position in Paris if things go his way.
The Serbian has clearly figured out how to beat Nadal, and intensity alone will simply not get the job done for the Mallorcan. One thing which might help, despite being highly unlikely, is for Rafael Nadal to hire a new coach. When American, fourteen time grand slam champion Pete Sampras transitioned from his coach as a junior to Tim Gullikson when he became a pro, Sampras remarked in an interview that he had gotten all he could out of the relationship with Pete Fischer, and it was “time to move on.” Strategy must override emotion, and tactics have to prevail over hampering loyalty; business comes first.
It seems like Nadal needs a new set of eyes on the court for him. His lifelong coach and uncle, Tony, does not seem to have the answers for the Djokovic problem. With Roland Garros right around the corner, Djokovic and Nadal being the top two seeds, are always on a collision course to the final. Fans can hope and wish, but so far Novak Djokovic has got Rafael Nadal’s number.
Commentary by John Benjamin