COUNTDOWN TO FRENCH OPEN (6 DAYS): Reverse Chase on. No. 1 Rafael Nadal Trying to Catch No. 2 Novak Djokovic

Novak Djokovic beats Rafael Nadal...again

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.

Nadal can get back up

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.

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

13 responses to “COUNTDOWN TO FRENCH OPEN (6 DAYS): Reverse Chase on. No. 1 Rafael Nadal Trying to Catch No. 2 Novak Djokovic

  • John

    I dunno. Two straight-set, clay court wins for Djokovic, yet I’m still on the fence about who’s going to win at Roland Garros. If the French were a good month away, I’d say Nadal’s got it. But now I’ve gotta say Djokovic. The thing is, you really never know what Uncle Toni’s gonna pull out of the bag. I think in the end, the better player will be the one who’s more willing to adjust to the other. That’s what frustrates me about Federer: He was invincible for too long, and it ruined him. Now he won’t even change his racquet!

    • gregcouch

      I’m still leaning toward Nadal for winning the French, but other than that, I agree with every word you wrote. How fun would it be in the French were won by…
      Federer. The 3rd best player, and a former French winner, has got to have a shot.

      • John

        As a Fed fan, I’m holding out hope. But I’m starting to wonder if maybe he doesn’t have the fire within anymore. Also, he says the same frustrating thing every time he doesn’t live up to expectations: ‘Well, I didn’t win today, but I’m happy with my game and how I’m playing, and looking forward to…’ , or some variation.

        I think back to something he once said in a post-match press conference re: Nadal — that you can’t change around your whole game for just “one guy.” And I remember thinking, ‘Really?? Kinda thought you did.’ I personally think he has to start losing to more and more 2nd-tier players before he hits bottom and makes more changes. I don’t think he’s bottomed out yet.

  • David

    It seems as though you are so pregnant on your assertion of Nadal as GOAT that you simply refuse to give Novak his due. To your fretful list of Nadal excuses we can now add “it was just a practice session”.

    • gregcouch

      If Djokovic wins the French, then I’m now 20 days from agreeing with you about him. He is playing the best tennis in the world. If he wins the French, then I’m agreeing he is the best player. If Nadal wins it, giving him four of the past five majors, are you saying you won’t think he’s the best?

    • gregcouch

      Wait a minute. I refuse to give Novak his due? My first sentence was that he has Nadal’s number, and also email, facebook and girlfriend’s number. You don’t think that gives him his due?

  • John

    Greg is in love with Nadal. Yes. Nadal is the favorite for the French. And I am going to go out on a limb and say he won’t reach the final. Nadal’s game has a lot to do with confidence. I am not sure he was “practicing” here. He was getting beat while chasing after every ball.

    Nadal’s solutions were desperate. WTA type moonballs that may work against Federer and less consistent players. Novak is a ball machine. He will crush all those. Now Novak should be the favorite for the French. But something tells me he could lose his chance by having another 5 hour semi final at the French.

    That’s the only way I can see Rafa beating Novak. Rafa shouldn’t have won the US Open Final either. Novak was dead tired. Novak has owned Rafa on hard courts for a long time. So losing to him in that final was just astonishing. Boy I wish Del Po was fit so we could have a Nadal Del Po Murray Djokoic semi

    • John

      I think Djokovic was just beginning to be the player he is now, right around that time. To be honest, he probably would not have won that second set 7-5 at the U.S. if it hadn’t been for the delay. But he played awesomely, I remember; against Fed, too. I never would have predicted his ascension.

      As for Roland Garros, if he has to deal with a 5-set slug fest before the final, I don’t think he’d beat Nadal unless he too has to battle it out with someone in the semis. But who knows? The tough 3-setter w/ Murray didn’t stop him from taking down Nadal on clay the next day, and Nadal had been cruising up til then, so he was fresh. Tennis is gettin’ good.

  • Nadal News » Blog Archive » RafaLint: May 16th

    […] L sends in this link: COUNTDOWN TO FRENCH OPEN (6 DAYS): Reverse Chase on. No. 1 Rafael Nadal Trying to Catch No. 2 Novak … […]

  • Ira

    We don’t need to worry about the Djoker competing with Nadal for RG; they’ll probably have discovered he was doping before then. Gluten-free diet, yeah right!

  • Voltaire

    Greg – I am trying to become hopeful about Rafa’s chances at RG and some of the reasoning you provided seems pretty good but the problem is even when i watch highlights all I see Nadal yanked left and right. But being a great player(a candidate for GOAT) I am willing to believe that he will have a solution at Roland Garros. One of the posters said that Novak should’ve lost last US final and he was tired…the final was moved to Monday so tiredness can’t be an excuse and if we watched the same match Rafa right royally stuffed him bar 2nd set. In fact Rafa shouldn’t have lost IW and Miami….he gave unnecessary confidence to Novak for Clay Swing. All said and done Novak currently is playing million times better but not necessarily a better player…..if Rafa manages to find consistency on FH DTL, makes his BH more deeper he will be in a better position or in a neutral position….and it’s easy to see who wins when rallies are in neutral position….the way some people are jumping to run him down should be motivation enough! Just remember Sod…Mr. DN.

  • Yolita

    I think it’s a bit misleading to say “4 out of the last 5 majors” and use that as a kind of argument for Nadal’s #1. The rankings work on a 52-week basis, not longer. The rankings take into account 4 GS, not 5. Otherwise we could say that Federer has won 16 out of the last 31 majors, to Nadal’s 9, how can Nadal be ranked above him?

    The ranking system appears paradoxical because Nadal has the benefit of the doubt with respect to his ability to defend RG, as he should. But if you deduct the points they defend at Roland Garros, Novak will start with 11305, to Rafa’s 10070. So Novak will start ahead by over 1200 points. That’s a lot of points, that’s why beating Novak in the final wouldn’t give Rafa enough points to overtake Novak.

    If you look at it in this way, then it’s not counter-intuitive. Novak is starting with a huge advantage, an advantage that he earned during these last months.

    Having said that, I think Rafa will win RG and Novak will probably be defeated before reaching the finals. Every player facing Novak now has nothing to lose. So they can unleash their best game and try to be the man to break the streak. It only takes one day in which Novak is below par for the streak to end.

  • Michelle

    I would not want to diminish what Djokovic has achieved this season, because it has been spectacular, but I think there is something very much to your theory at play here.

    I apologize in advance for the length of my rambling but in my mind these four loses can be explained.

    In Indian Wells, Rafa was coming off a lengthy layoff and could not maintain his level through the final. His serve then was a disaster and when he lost focus and it deserted him (yet again) in the final he became distracted and in the end too stubborn to rectify the situation. After the match he spoke about how he felt the only reason why he was in the second set was because Nole had made so many errors returning his second serve. I think he does well to vary his serve more often and taking the heat off his first would have helped him. He refused and the end result is that Nole wins and Nole gains confidence.

    In Miami I think Rafa became complacent after building an early and hefty lead. A good push back gave Nole momentum and belief and that belief carried him through to the third set where Rafa’s conditioning (not to form yet) was his downfall. That critical double fault followed one significant rally where Rafa was clearly winded and appeared to be in some physical distress. Game over, Nole is empowered and the streak continues.

    Madrid was the most worrying for me at the time in that Rafa appeared to be well and easily dominated by Nole. In retrospect though I’m not sure how much Rafa’s heart was in that final and in fact the semi-final that preceded it. He played very defensive, reactionary and his level had clearly dropped from previous matches. At times he appeared somewhat vacant and elsewhere. Seeing how emotional he was during the tribute that played before his match with Federer, and knowing now that he had dedicated his run through the tournament in Rome to the memory of Seve Ballesteros (even adding Seve’s initials to his own signature after his victories), I think it goes without saying that the loss of an idol had a greater effect on Rafa than we can know.

    Rome is most simple. While I do think he would have liked to have won I’m not so sure he was prepared to go out of his way to do so. He battled a fever early in the tournament and nearly pulled out. Some easy matches and the desire to make good the disaster that was his first round match encouraged him to continue. There were some unlucky moments in the first and he lost the opener, game over. With Roland Garros but a week and a half away there was no way Rafa was going to push himself physically to beat Nole. I do believe he was trying some things but there is no way he would show his cards in terms of any strategy he may or may not implement if they were to meet again soon.

    The grand slam tournaments are what matter most to Rafa and he has said so many times. Heading into the French Open he has a grand slam winning % of .333. That is 9/27 of grand slams he has played in and even better he is 9 for 11 in finals. Should he win in Paris his winning % will trail only that of the great Bjorn Borg. He knows how to prepare and he knows how to win. Everything he does in the weeks leading up to what is his most cherished major are in preparation for it. Of course he has another level. He can, and he will run down those balls he chose not to in Rome and he will not let those break points go as easily as he has done so lately.

    He does not just have to beat Nole though he can just as easily wait for Nole to beat himself. This streak has gained so much momentum that it could lead Nole down the road to a burnout and do so very quickly. The pressure not to lose is immense and he refuses to give in physically. While his determination was admirable I watched him struggle through the semi-final he played against Murray and all I could think about was Roland Garros. Do you really want to head there with a hip flexor sprain? Do you really want to lay it all on the line and have nothing left? Is it worth it? Right now, with only two slams to his name, perhaps it is worth it. For Rafa it has not yet been worth it but when it is we will see who is the greater champion.

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