May 14, 2012
May 8, 2012
Night comes to the desert all at once, as if someone turned off the light. - Joyce Carol Oates
For Rafael Nadal, the lights did indeed go out all at once Sunday. After taking the opening set against second-ranked Novak Djokovic at the BNP Paribas Championships in Indian Wells, Calif., Nadal's ability to serve a tennis ball vanished in the unusually cold desert air, and Djokovic coasted to the 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 victory.
The win, Djokovic's first over Nadal when losing the first set, also leaves the Serb undefeated on the year, as he hasn't lost in 18 matches. This is the longest such streak to open a calendar year since Ivan Lendl began 1986 by winning his first 25 matches. It also completes an extraordinary tournament for Djokovic, who took out Nadal and Roger Federer on consecutive days.
Djokovic is not only unquestionably the No. 2 player in the world, at this rate it appears he's ready to finally challenge for the No. 1 spot, which has been the domain of Federer and Nadal since 2004. Back in 2007, it seemed obvious that Djokovic would inherit their throne. But over the next few years, Djokovic's fortitude and stamina would frequently come into question, and other players - most notably Juan Martin del Potro and Andy Murray - were considered the ones to challenge Federer and Nadal.
But starting with his run to the U.S. Open finals, where he lost to Nadal, on to Serbia's victory in the Davis Cup and then of course his victory in the Australian Open, Djokovic is playing the way so many had envisioned four or five years ago, with controlled aggression and relentless defensive pressure.
What was most impressive about Djokovic's performance was his ability to shrug off the first-set loss. This isn't easy against anyone, but when facing Nadal it's an entirely different story. He's one of the great frontrunners in all of sport. And the way the Mallorcan was nailing his flat backhand to all corners of the court in the opening set, it seemed a foregone conclusion that Nadal would extend his dominance over his rival, whom Nadal now leads 16-8.
But a funny thing happened on this day after a full moon: It was Nadal who became unglued, not Djokovic. Until a few months ago, it was always Djokovic who melted, faded, imploded - however one wants to refer to it - when he took on Federer or Nadal in so many big moments on major stages. Yet Sunday it was Nadal who looked utterly forlorn in the latter stages.
It all had to do with his serve. Maybe it was the absence of his Uncle Toni, his coach and mentor for two decades, the man who can usually dissect the cause of whatever ails his brilliant nephew. Perhaps it was the stubborn breeze in Southern California. Whatever the case, it's hard to recall Nadal - or any top player - serving so dreadfully. This was after he had played a nearly flawless first set, delivering several serves of 130 m.p.h. This looked like the Nadal who thrashed anyone in sight from May through September of last year, when he won three Grand Slams on three different surfaces.
Yet right from the start of the second set, Nadal turned into the everyman hacker in a recreational league. At one point, he missed 11 straight first serves. In an odd way, it's almost reassuring to see such an abysmal display because it serves as a reminder to fans that these extraordinary athletes are human and thus prone to mind-boggling lapses.
Nadal finished the day serving under 40 percent. What should make this especially troubling for Rafa is that he is not an overly aggressive server. It's true that his serve, once mediocre and now a weapon, is one he takes chances on more frequently. But to continue to miss even after taking off some pace is an altogether different story.
It's impossible to say, of course, whether Djokovic would have beaten Nadal if Nadal had served even remotely close to his usual 65 to 70 percent. But let there be no doubt about how superbly Djokovic played throughout the match. He won just as many extended rallies as did Nadal, something previously unheard of. And the depth of his shots, especially on the backhand side, combined with his singular defensive abilities should cause significant trepidation for the rest of the field as the tennis season enters its nearly uninterrupted four-month stretch, starting with the Sony Ericsson Championships in Miami, the clay-court season culminating with the French Open and then Wimbledon.
It should be a riveting next few months in men's tennis, with three primary storylines: Djokovic's emergence as an intimidating player, Nadal's attempt to replicate his historic 2010 when he won three Slams, and the question of whether Federer's long goodbye from the top will include one more major championship.