Dynamite Novak Djokovic masters Rafael Nadal at last
The Serb had never beaten the Spaniard in five finals and 24 meetings -until Indian Wells 2011
The stage, a deep indigo swimming pool of a court, is the biggest outside Flushing Meadows, and Indian Wells’s central arena was filled to capacity for the two men who will top the rankings this week: Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.
It was a suitable climax to a week that saw brilliant teenage talent make its mark, saw a former No4 return to the top of his game after almost a year away, and saw six top 20 seeds -including Nos 5 and 6 -lose their opening matches.
In the end, the draw funnelled the four finest players into the second weekend, the four who owned the last 24 Majors between them.
And the first Masters of 2011 was also about to witness what might become a decisive shift in the power balance of men’s tennis. For while Djokovic had not beaten Nadal in any of their five previous finals, this was a supremely confident Djokovic as yet unbeaten in 2011 and on a match-winning streak of 19.
With the Australian Open and the Dubai 500 in the bag already, the new-model, mature Djokovic, after playing an astounding semi-final of consistency and flair against Roger Federer, certainly sounded like he was ready to win:
“[Getting to No2] Ã¢â‚¬Â¦is the crown for my achievements this year. I think I deserve it. I think I’ve played the best tennis of my life in the last three months. I have been very dedicated and very professional and I want to keep on going.”
Nadal, though playing his first tournament since retiring injured from the Australian Open, had worked himself, through the singles and doubles draws, into match sharpness. He had also defeated Djokovic in their last two meetings, both on hard courts: in last year’s US Open final and at November’s World Tour Finals.
The opening of the match looked for all the world as though Nadal would continue his domination. The Djokovic serve, so solid against Federer, was missing its mark and, in the fifth game, he failed to produce a single first delivery. He defended four break points but lost the fifth to a bombardment of Nadal forehand drives, and the Spaniard had first blood.
It was the famous Djokovic backhand, guided for an acute cross court winner, that returned the favour, and he broke back.
These challenges to either player inspired both to move up a gear in a match already being played at an energy-sapping pace. But once again, Djokovic came under pressure on serve as Nadal pinned him behind the baseline with his trademark swerving, deep forehands. The Serb put two identical crosscourt backhands into the net to concede another break.
He looked exhausted, while Nadal looked as though he was just getting into his stride, winning 10 points in a string of 12. It had Djokovic shaking his head in disbelief at where he found himself: a 6-4 set down.
His bewilderment was understandable. There was precious little in the stats to explain Djokovic’s losing score other than Nadal’s outstanding superiority on his second serve. And in a set where both were hitting first serve percentages down in the mid-50s, that was significant. By the fourth game in the second set, Nadal had still only lost two points out of 15 on his second serve.
Djokovic, to his credit, kept eager and continued to hold onto his serve, and a winning forehand down the line in the sixth game brought up the first break point of the set. Nadal saved it but, at the second time of asking, he pushed a forehand wide, and Djokovic went 4-2 up.
And as if to encourage the Serb further, the sun slipped behind a covering of cloud to bring the temperature down to Djokovic’s comfort zone. Not to be outdone, though, Nadal piled on the heat to win two break point chances and they were all square again.
With both players producing their finest tennis, Djokovic brought up a triple break point with a killer of a lob in the most outstanding rally of the match, and he went ahead again, 5-3. When he failed to cash in on his first two set points, Nadal looked sure to break back yet again. Had he done so, the momentum would have stayed with him, and the match and title would probably have followed.
As it was, Djokovic rose to the challenge through a gruelling 12-minute game where five set points came and went. Finally, he took the sixth just as the set clicked over to an hour.
Still the stats seemed at odds with the score: Djokovic produced more unforced errors and Nadal equalled him in winners. Once again, it was the serve that told the story. Djokovic’s had soared to almost 70 percent while Nadal’s had slumped to 25.
That poor serving continued into the third set, and Nadal was immediately broken to 15. It was Spaniard’s turn to look bewildered as his forehand followed his serve out of the Stadium Court exit, and he conceded a second break.
That was enough for Djokovic. The swagger in the Serb’s demeanour showed he had no intention of letting Nadal play any more part in the match. Where Nadal looked flat-footed, Djokovic maintained both poise and aggression in equal measure.
Nadal had barely got a game on the board before his opponent stepped up to serve for the match, and it was over in clinical form, 6-2.
So Djokovic, in winning his 21st title and sixth Masters, at last got a win against Nadal in a title match, a win that came from sustained pressure and impressive focus. It also made him only the third man on the tour to beat Nadal and Federer twice in a single tournament.
The world No2 was confident before this tournament started. He must now feel -for a while at least -indestructible. For how many men have opened a season with 18 consecutive wins and three straight titles, including a Major? None in living memory.
It is surely only a matter of time until the new No2 takes that final step to the very top.