This is a thrilling moment to watch Rafael Nadal. It’s when the best player in the world is forced to search for another level. Nadal must raise his game, find something to make himself better. He lost to Novak Djokovic for the third time in a row Sunday, 7-5, 6-4 in the final at Madrid.
Djokovic hasn’t lost all year. He won the year’s only major, the Australian Open, and he has bypassed Roger Federer. Has he passed Nadal, too?
No. Nadal had to beat Federer at Wimbledon to reach the mountaintop, and Djokovic is going to have to beat Nadal at the French Open. Or maybe Wimbledon. Or the U.S. Open. The point is, tennis is decided in the majors, not in Madrid or Miami. In a few weeks, if Djokovic beats Nadal at Roland Garros?
Then the torch has passed.
“The No. 1 ranking is not in danger,’’ Nadal said. “It’s finished. Let’s not lie to ourselves. That’s the reality. I have to see what’s missing, and work with a cool, open mind to decipher things and find the solutions, to try to do a little better next time.’’
I’m not talking about rankings. Nadal is 1, Djokovic 2. But if Djokovic wins the Italian Open and Nadal loses before the semis, then Djokovic will be No. 1. That’s a computer talking. But if Djokovic wants to be seen as the best, he’s going to need to beat Nadal in a major moment.
This was the moment of the match Sunday: Djokovic was up 4-0 in the first set, crushing flat winners every time he swung at his backhand. He was pushing Nadal backward. So Nadal, who had been going to Djokovic’ backhand on every shot, started getting aggressive, attacking Djokovic’ forehand to mix things up. Nadal went on a run, pulled to 5-all. Then, Djokovic adjusted.
That was Nadal trying to search in the heat of the moment, not the cool, open mind that he talked about later.
What Nadal has to do now is change targets. He has spent years aiming at Federer. Nadal would wing his topsin forehand crosscourt to Federer’s weak spot, high to his backhand. That’s not going to work against Djokovic, whose two-hander and can handle that fine.
I’m not sure what Nadal is going to have to do to stay ahead of Djokovic. But it seems that he’s going to have to mix up his attack and flatten out some shots. Looping, short groundstrokes are a disaster against Djokovic.
There are still reasons to think Nadal will win the French. Let me re-phrase that: I still think Nadal is going to win the French. For one, Madrid is in the high altitude, which limited the bite of Nadal’s trademark topspin. It’s the same problem for curveball pitchers throwing in Denver’s Coors Field. That won’t be an issue at Roland Garros. And it didn’t seem that Nadal bothered to flatten out his shots much Sunday.
But he also didn’t appear to run with his usual abandon. Remember in the old days how he’d fly across the court and slide 10 feet? I never saw that Sunday. Maybe it was a bad-knee week; Nadal’s knees are going to be up and down. Or maybe it wasn’t just the week. Nadal, at 24 not quite a year older than Djokovic, has a lot of particularly hard miles on those knees.
What’s thrilling is watching two guys raise the level of the game. Nadal now has to deal with a different person coming at him from a different angle.
Djokovic has been the best player of 2011, having won all 32 matches. Ten more and he ties John McEnroe’s record start in 1984.
Remember how he was always breathing hard, seemingly dying on the court? That wasn’t just an excuse (though, maybe partly). His fitness isn’t an issue anymore. In fact, he barely even seems to sweat anymore. He credits much of his improved fitness to a nutrionist and a new gluten-free diet.
“He’s done a great job in changing my diet after we established I am allergic to some food ingredients like gluten,’’ Djokovic told reporters recently. “It means I can’t eat stuff like pizza, pasta and bread. I have lost some weight, but it’s only helped me because my movement is much sharper now and I feel great physically.’’
He also has developed the best running backhand in the game. His footwork and flexibility have always been great. He has finally gone back to his old serve motion, getting rid of that awful windmill thing he was doing, when it seemed to try serving without bending his elbow.
His targets have been Federer and Nadal, and he now is attacking them the same way Juan Martin del Potro did in the summer of 2009. He’s crushing flat shots down the line, pushing Federer and Nadal backward. Nadal is vulnerable to it because his shots can get short and loopy, setting up Djokovic’ attack. Federer’s one-handed backhand and antiquated flexible racquet leave him needing to defend himself.
Djokovic has made his move, actually beating Nadal on red clay in Spain. Now Nadal has to do something back. They raise the game right before our eyes, with del Potro, another guy with another target, only a few months behind.
Nadal’s greatness is out for a test drive now. Let’s see what this thing’s got.