Something had to give and in the end it was Rafael Nadal’s clay-court impregnability. On rides Novak Djokovic, possibly to the world No1 ranking within a few more days if the tremor he inflicted on the game yesterday reaches its ultimate manifestation.
No human can stop the 23-year-old Djokovic right now, not even Nadal on the surface upon which he is this century’s mightiest of the mighty. From early December last year, Djokovic has crashed across the tennis landscape, obliterating all in his path. Yesterday, on Nadal’s home patch in the final of the Mutua Madrid Open, he could not win a set, the second time that has happened in the Caja Magica in three years. But this was different.
In 2009, Djokovic had extended Nadal so remarkably in the semi-finals that the Spaniard was unable to summon his best to deflect Roger Federer on the last day. This year it was Djokovic who recovered from a set and 4-1 down in the last four against Thomaz Bellucci, of Brazil, to guarantee a place in the finale.
And for two hours and 17 minutes yesterday, he ran down everything Nadal could throw at him, wielding his racket on the double-handed backhand like a wheat-field thresher.
Silver plates are unwelcome trinkets on Nadal’s Majorcan mantlepiece. During the ceremony to celebrate Djokovic’s 7-5, 6-4 victory he leant on the table on the dais on which the trophies had been standing as if he could not wait for the pleasantries to end.
This is the third Masters 1000 tournament in succession that the Serbian has triumphed against him and this time he did not need to give Nadal the head start of a set. Remarkably, Djokovic is 19-0 in finals when he wins the opening set. Do not let this man sniff a lead.
Indeed, Djokovic rushed out to a 4-0 head of steam and though Nadal pegged that advantage back, bit by bit, saving three set points in the tenth game, the challenger was holding his nerve with astonishing aplomb on this surface against the best backcourt defender in the game. The set’s clinching stroke was perhaps the least attractive of the whole match, a stiff backhand that clipped the net cord.
In the first game of the second set, Nadal produced a stunning “tweener” – a through-the-legs winning lob – over a stranded Djokovic and the feeling was that, with such impetus and the crowd fervently in his corner, he might turn the tide.
But Nadal dropped serve in the very next game, Djokovic kept his nose in front and finally it was the Spaniard who buckled, staggered by a succession of vicious winners and finally floating a careless backhand into the tramlines.
Djokovic raced into an embrace with Marian Vajda, his coach, Milan Amanovic, his fitness trainer, and his younger brother, Marko. These are the people who galvanise and protect him, who have contrived the perfect relationship, secure in the knowledge that their man is dedicated to being the best that he can be. The No1 ranking is the goal and if he can win in Rome this week and Nadal fails to reach the semi-finals, he is more or less there.
Andy Murray was not sure whether the match would be required viewing. Perhaps it was as well to give it a miss – it might have given him indigestion. If the Briton had finished his session in the gym, then he might have turned it on. He just wanted to put his defeat in Madrid by Bellucci on the back burner, along with a few others that have scarred the past few weeks.
The next opportunity to put that right comes quickly in this, the most demanding stretch of the year. At the Foro Italico, he will play either Xavier Malisse, of Belgium, or Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, of Spain, in his opening match on Wednesday. He said that he prefers the courts a little more low and slow and this is how they will be as clay returns to its natural level this week. With Djokovic the favourite. — The Times News Service, London