Novak Djokovic Still Chasing Nadal. Can Rafa Raise His Game, and all of Tennis, to Another Level?

Rafael Nadal

Rafael Nadal is still the best player in the world. It’s true that Novak Djokovic has beaten him twice in a row in big matches, including Sunday’s 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (7-4) win in Miami.

Djokovic has broken up The Big Two. He has bypassed Roger Federer, beating him in two straight majors and then again in Indian Wells. But don’t be confused by who is chasing what.

Djokovic is still chasing Nadal, and I’m not just talking about rankings. It is a mentality, too, a pecking order. Nadal is still king. Djokovic, who is No. 2, has won 24 straight matches, including the Australian Open. But Nadal won the three previous majors.

Don’t forget that.

And Nadal is not going away. He can’t fade now if he’s the greatest player of all time, which I think he is. Or will be.

Nadal-Djokovic is the next rivalry. And while the focus is on Djokovic’ amazing run, I want to talk about Nadal.

This changes everything for him.

He has spent years chasing after Federer, catching him, then getting hurt, then chasing him again. Now, that chase is over. Nadal is far better than Federer.

And Nadal has someone coming after him.

The dynamic flip-flops. Basically, Nadal assumes the Federer role in the rivalry, and Djokovic takes over the Nadal role.

The pressure now is on Nadal, who has been dodging it neatly for so long, always insisting that he was looking up to Federer. Even when Nadal was clearly the better player, he always cast himself as the underdog.

He can’t do that anymore, not after the way he crushed Federer last week. It is beyond pretending any more.

Djokovic is coming after Nadal, and soon, I think Juan Martin del Potro, might be, too.

So what is about to happen now is a thrilling thing for tennis, or for any sport, really. Nadal will be forced to raise the level of his game. How? In what way?

I don’t know. That’s for Uncle Toni and him to figure out.

But when the best player in the world raises his game, it’s not just an individual thing. It raises the whole sport, makes everyone else have to climb even higher, too.

At 25, Nadal is in his prime, and you can’t fall behind others in your own era if you’re going to be the greatest of all time (GOAT). That’s why it’s hard to count Federer as the GOAT, because Nadal passed him.

Nadal adjusted his game to catch Federer, adjusted again to win on grass, adjusted again to fend off the big hard-hitters, who are taking advantage of the new racquet and string technology. And last, he developed a crushing serve and flatter, deeper backhand so he could win on hard courts.

That’s how he won the U.S. Open last year, beating. . .Djokovic.

Nadal is always improving himself. But the mentality is much more free when you’re going after something than it is when you’re fighting something off. Nadal has more to lose now than to gain.

No matter what changes Nadal has made over the years, with most of them the driving force, has been to tailor his game to beat Federer on all different surfaces.

Now, Nadal has to show more. He will have to find Djokovic’ weaknesses. At this point, I’m not sure what they are.

Djokovic has historically had health and breathing issues. But 3½ hours of grueling play on hard courts in Miami heat Sunday suggest he’s OK with that now. He also used to have an issue of belief about whether he truly belongs.

That’s gone now, too.

Djokovic has amazing speed, flexibility and footwork. He can crush forehands from the baseline, return serve beautifully. He comes to the net at all the right times, uses touch, mixes things up.

His two-handed backhand does not provide a weak spot up high the way Federer’s one-hander did. So Nadal can’t just bounce heavy topspin and attack.

No one seems to be mentioning this, but Nadal, under pressure from Djokovic’ relentlessness, lost nerve on his second serve in Indian Wells, and then again Sunday.

Djokovic is chasing well.

Novak Djokovic

To be clear, Federer is still going to be great for a while. Even if del Potro fully recovers from his wrist problems and regains his confidence, Federer will still be the fourth-best player. He’s just not in the picture for No. 1 anymore, especially with an outdated flexible racquet that can’t hold up, with his one-hander, to the power coming at him in the modern game. But I’ve already made that argument. (Check my previous column on this site).

Nadal’s historical greatness was always going to be tested by some up-and-coming generation. How exciting for tennis that there is no gap between Federer starting to slip and Djokovic coming in.

And the pressure is on Nadal far more than it ever was on Federer, who came along when tennis wasn’t having its best moment. Nadal is surrounded by far more greatness than Federer ever was.

If he holds off Djokovic and del Potro, after having passed Federer, then there will be no doubt he is the GOAT. If not? The argument gets even more complicated.

Don’t rule out Pete Sampras.

I think Nadal will elevate his game, but what new greatness can he find? That’s the task, and it should be amazing to see:

The best player in the world searching for another level.

About gregcouch

I can talk tennis all day long, and often do. And yet some of the people I talk to about it might rather I talk about something else. Or with someone else. That’s how it is with tennis, right? Sort of an addiction. Sort of a high. I am a national columnist at FoxSports.com and a FoxSports1 TV insider, and have been a columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. In 2010, I was the only American sports writer to cover the full two weeks of all four majors, and also to cover each of the U.S. Masters series events. I’ve seen a lot of tennis, talked with a lot of players, coaches, agents. I watched from a few rows behind the line judge as Serena rolled her foot onto the baseline for the footfault, a good call, at the 2009 U.S. Open. I sat forever watching a John Isner marathon, leaving for Wimbledon village to watch an England World Cup soccer game at a pub and then returning for hours of Isner, sitting a few feet from his wrecked coach. I got to see Novak Djokovic and Robin Soderling joke around on a practice court on the middle Sunday at Wimbledon, placing a small wager on a tiebreaker. Djokovic won, and Soderling pulled a bill out of his wallet, crumpled it into his fist and threw it at Djokovic, who unwadded it, kissed it, and told me, “My work is done here.’’ And when Rafael Nadal won the French Open in 2010, I finished my column, walked back out onto the court, and filled an empty tic tac container with the red clay. I’m looking at it right now. Well, I don’t always see the game the same way others do. I can be hard on tennis, particularly on the characters in suits running it. Tennis has no less scandal and dirt than any other game. Yet somehow, it seems to be covered up, usually from an incredible web of conflicts of interest. I promise to always tell the truth as I see it. Of course, I would appreciate it if you’d let me know when I’m wrong. I love sports arguments and hope to be in a few of them with you here. Personal info: One-handed backhand, serve-and-volleyer. View all posts by gregcouch

4 responses to “Novak Djokovic Still Chasing Nadal. Can Rafa Raise His Game, and all of Tennis, to Another Level?

  • Kyle Hoegh

    I agree that it will be interesting to see how he adjusts his game for Djoker. I also think it will be interesting to see if Toni puts the focus on improvements that will exploit Delpo, or if he will focus on Djoker. An argument could be made that his current game is enough to beat Djoker on any surface in a five setter (as hard at the 3.5 hrs were for three sets, I’d still be surprised if Nadal wouldn’t have done what he did to Verdasco and Fed in 5 at the AO Nadal won had the match been best of 5). What remains to be seen is if Nadal’s current game could compete with Delpo when Delpo is fully back to form. I’m guessing Toni/Rafa are working on tactics to get Delpo out of rhythm/comfort zone, even moreso than anyone else these days. A great time for men’s tennis no matter which way you look at it.

  • Matt Mitchell

    Time to sacrifice the GOAT and convert it to Great Player of Your Era (GOYE). My take on the flip side, Olé Nole.

    http://web.me.com/classic_tennis/Site/Overheard/Entries/2011/4/4_Time_to_Move_to_the_Red_Dirt.html

  • David

    Greg,

    I say this as a big Rafa fan. Your criticisms of Fed are way off base! How does Sampras get a pass for his clay court results but Fed doesn’t for losing some big matches to Nadal? You say it’s hard to count Fed as the GOAT because Nadal “passed him.” But it’s Ok for Sampras to be the GOAT even though half the tour was better than him on one of the major surfaces?

  • Lyle

    For instance, to your market excursion this weekend, you’ve accumulated two $1 coupons for cereal, some $0.

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