Novak Djokovic doesn’t just have Rafael Nadal’s number, he also has his address, his email, his Facebook page and his girlfriend’s number, too. Four straight wins over Nadal in the past two months, including Sunday’s 6-4, 6-4 win in the Italian Open.
So the French Open starts this Sunday, and the chase is on now in men’s tennis. But it’s going in reverse order, with No. 1 trying to catch No. 2.
Djokovic has blown right past Nadal. And maybe I’m just in denial or something, but I still think Nadal is going to win the French. If so, it will be a typically goofy moment for tennis’ goofy computer rankings, as Nadal beats Djokovic in the final to re-establish himself. He will have won four of the past five majors, including two final wins over Djokovic.
Next day? Djokovic will climb over Nadal to No. 1. That’s how this is set up.
Whatever. If Djokovic wins, everything makes sense. And at this point, that’s what most people expect. There are no more excuses or reasons for Djokovic beating Nadal. It’s not that Nadal is coming back from injury, or that anything can happen on any given day. In Madrid, the high altitude and speedy clay favored Djokovic.
In Rome Sunday, no altitude issues, healthy Nadal, French Open-like clay and conditions. But I don’t think this was the moment when Djokovic finally made his point to Nadal. That happened a week earlier, in Madrid.
This was the moment the chase started. On Sunday, Nadal was making an unbelievable concession. Instead of waiting to see how he would do against Djokovic with circumstances favoring him, he cut and ran. Nadal was acknowledging that Djokovic is better now, or at least that he’s playing better.
It wasn’t the denial we saw in Roger Federer when Nadal passed him. It wasn’t the stubbornness we saw from Andy Roddick for years after the top of the game passed him.
Nadal wanted to beat Djokovic, but this was about when and where. While they were playing in Italy Sunday, Nadal was trying to beat Djokovic in Paris three weeks from now.
“I’m doing very well, but one player is doing better than me,’’ Nadal told reporters after the match. “I am waiting every week to try solutions. So let’s see.’’
What I’m saying is this: On Sunday, Nadal was searching, trying different things that he and Uncle Toni, his coach, had come up with while doing their homework on Djokovic. He was less-interested in winning the match than he was in deploying some new things on Djokovic as a test for what might work at Roland Garros.
Have you ever seen Nadal crushing forehands, and then just throw up a popup like that? He did it several times. He also moved closer to the baseline, cutting off some of Djokovic’ incredible newfound angles. But also, I’m not sure I remember seeing Nadal serve out wide much. Or hit dropshots, except off of Djokovic’ dropshots.
It just seemed that Nadal was practicing. Practicing hard. And the eye wasn’t on winning this match so much as figuring what might work in the long run.
Or at least in Roland Garros.
After the Madrid tournament, I wrote that this would be an exciting time to see Nadal, because he was going to be forced to see how far his greatness can go. Either that, or he’ll just fall behind Djokovic for good. He is not the type to give up, or give in, that easily. How thrilling it is to see one of the best players of all time trying to climb to another level.
That’s what it looked like he was doing on Sunday.
And by the way: Credit Andy Murray for joining the race in the semifinals Saturday, too. He was dinking against Djokovic at first, and getting crushed. Then, he started to add pace. Then, he began mixing up paces, and it almost worked. Djokovic won in a third-set tiebreaker.
Djokovic now has great fitness, better than Nadal. That comes from hard work, but also from the discovery of his gluten allergy, and his new diet. He has amazing angles on his backhand, too much power on his forehand, a great return of serve. Still, his serve isn’t great.
The thing is, he’s been an excellent player for years. But this new level is a surprise to everyone. Nadal and Murray are already willing to adjust.
It’s acceptance, understanding and time to fight back. I don’t know if Nadal will have found what he needs for the French final – the two-week tournament starts on Sunday — but he has always been willing to tailor his game to his needs. For years, his target has been Federer. Now, he and Uncle Toni have a new mountain to climb. No one has ever targeted Djokovic before.
“I was happy with the way I (played) today,’’ Nadal said. “I didn’t hit the ball (bad), but it seems like he’s always in a better position. I played more aggressive than one week ago. I didn’t play all defensive like in Madrid. . .
“I lost in Madrid, so I tried different things today. I have many things (to try) next time.’’
Nadal can still get his number back from Djokovic. And his girlfriend’s, too.