If a couple of months ago, someone had placed a wager on Djokovic defeating Nadal in back to back Masters finals, and that too on clay, that person would have reaped a massive windfall. Indeed, even though the Serb had already beaten Nadal twice before the onset of the clay court season, such has been the dominance of the Spaniard on his favourite surface, that few would have been brave enough to back Djokovic in Madrid and Rome. In doing so, Novak has extended his unbeaten start to the year, which currently stands at 37 matches. If one also includes the matches towards the end of 2010, then Novak’s streak is a mid-boggling 39 consecutive matches.
What really stood out in the two recent encounters between them is not that this marked the first time in his career that Nadal lost two finals on clay, but in fact the manner in which those defeats were imposed. Djokovic went through the two finals playing in a manner which Nadal himself would have been extremely proud of. Indeed, the Spaniard, even with his supreme athleticism, ability to run down each and every ball and a seemingly bottomless arsenal of viciously spinning deep groundstrokes, had no answer to what Djokovic unleashed. Djokovic seemed to possess that extra bit more than Nadal, be in the sting of his groundstrokes, or the ability to chase the tightest angles. In the end, the fact that Novak won both the matches without even dropping a set was merely a footnote to a brutal performance.
During all of this, it is a bit sad to see Federer almost being consigned to irrelevance. The Swiss has fallen pretty far behind the race to the top spot. He will be pretty desperate to make amends for his start to the season, which by his lofty standards, is well below par. Even though he is past his prime, he will be eager to confound his critics to prove he can still challenge for the top honours.
Where does Nadal go from here? For the moment, he is still ranked #1. However, if Novak reaches the finals in the French Open, he will overtake Nadal in the race, irrespective of who wins in the final. In the shorter term, Nadal needs to something different – on current form, it is very difficult to see how Rafa can get past Novak by using his trademark baseline game. One thing is for sure, it promises to be a very exciting few months as this rivalry intensifies over the course of the season. Let Roland Garros begin!