Novak Djokovic storms to fourth 2011 title in Miami
Serb beats Rafael Nadal for the second time in a fortnight to win his fourth title of the year
The two big Masters finals that bring the spring hard-court season to its climax are separated by just two weeks.
They have the same size draw, the same size prize, and are played in the same country.
But not since 1995 had they featured the same two protagonists. Then, Andre Agassi gained revenge in Miami over Pete Sampras, who had won in Indian Wells. This time, it was world No1 Rafael Nadal attempting to turn the tables on world No2 Novak Djokovic.
So good had been the form of both men in Miami that between them they had held 87 of 88 service games, with Nadal dropping just the one serve to concede the only set from either racket on their routes to the final.
However, the Djokovic streak had been truly jaw-dropping: 25 consecutive wins since December 2010, three consecutive titles, and just five sets dropped from 62 played. He was also aiming for the big triple crown of the tennis season’s first swing: the Australian Open and these two prestigious Masters.
So there was something in the air for this final. It was going to be a close one, just as their Indian Wells match had been, and the record-breaking crowd - enthusiastic, vociferous and split down the middle in their allegiance -was electric with anticipation.
The gusty conditions initially seemed to make life a little harder for Djokovic, and a bad mishit in his second service game handed Nadal an early break.
But Nadal, too, looked edgy on his serve, first with a double fault, then a wild off-forehand and finally with a wayward backhand. The nine-minute game offered up three break point chances to Djokovic, but Nadal slugged his way to a hold and a 3-1 lead.
Nadal took further advantage of the conditions by playing high, slow, spinning balls that veered with the wind, and errors started to leak from the Djokovic racket as he conceded another break.
It took an eight-minute game for Nadal to stretch the lead to 1-5, and that was a sign that Djokovic was getting to grips with the wind and finding his length, pace and a couple of delightful drop shots. The Serb broke serve and pulled back to 4-5, forcing Nadal to serve out the set 6-4.
Battle was well and truly engaged at the start of the second set as both ran down everything their opponent could throw at them, from drops to volleys to searing baseline angles. Even the hyper-fit Nadal looked winded by their exertions.
But Djokovic had clearly worked himself into a rhythm and, with the wind dropping, he eliminated the errors and began to drive Nadal deep into his backhand corner. Nadal, for his part, continued too often to play his backhand slice to Djokovic’s stronger backhand wing and was persistently punished.
The swing in momentum drew an early break for Djokovic to lead 3-0. Nadal managed a break point chance to level things up, but Djokovic continued to counter the Spaniard’s game and out-think him on almost every play.
One moment he dropped a volley short and the next he lobbed over Nadal’s head. First he hit wide to the forehand then wide to the backhand, challenging his opponent to change his tactics. And while Nadal’s serve sank into the sub-60 per cent zone, as it had done at Indian Wells, Djokovic was able to serve out comfortably to love and level the match, 6-3.
Nadal began to look weary both physically and mentally, and the sweat streamed from him. This was gruelling, intense stuff and there was no let-up at the start of the third set as Nadal was forced to defend his opening serve for almost nine minutes.
The clock had already ticked over the two-hour mark, but neither player gave an inch as the set pounded its way through a further hour and a quarter with not a break on either side.
Only a tie-break could decide this one and that, inevitably, had the crowd on its feet from the start. The first five points went against serve before Djokovic managed to hold and then pull clear with a backhand down-the-line winner, 6-2. At the third time of asking, he struck the decisive blow to take his seventh Masters title and his 26th match win in a row.
Djokovic continues to impress in so many ways. Not only is he supremely confident but he is mentally agile in coming up with a different game-plan for whoever he is playing.
Most important of all, though, he has become physically resilient, with no sign of the breathing or energy problems that dogged his former years. Anyone who can stand toe-to-toe with Nadal for more than three hours -and look the fresher man at the end -is an athlete of the first order.
Djokovic and Nadal now have 25 matches under their belts, more than either has played against Roger Federer -though they have some way to go to emulate Sampras and Agassi who met 34 times.
But at just 23 and 24 years of age respectively, and now benefiting from the top two places in the rankings, there is clearly a lot more water to pass under the bridge of the Djokovic/Nadal rivalry.
As they switch to clay, the question on everyone’s lips will be: can Djokovic beat Nadal for the first time on the red stuff?
If he can, the Miami champion will justifiably have that No1 ranking in his sights by the end of the year as well.