April 11, 2012
April 12, 2012
Putting forth the notion that Rafael Nadal isn't the overwhelming favorite at every tournament during the clay-court season, especially the French Open, would have been utter heresy until last year. After all, Nadal on clay was the closest embodiment of a sure thing that exists in sports. He has won six of the last seven French titles and is roundly considered the greatest player to toil on the dirt in the modern era.
But the explosive emergence, and then complete dominance, of Novak Djokovic over the last 17 months has so altered the tennis landscape that even fierce Nadal partisans have to admit that the man from Mallorca cannot be considered the French Open favorite this spring.
As the clay-court season begins this week in Monte Carlo, arguably the most scenic tennis setting in the world, Nadal will be the one feeling the pressure. A lot of pressure.
Even last year, after losing decisively to Djokovic in two Masters Series finals in the lead-up to Paris, Nadal never felt too anxious in the French Open because he didn't have to face Djokovic. Roger Federer took care of that when he upset Djokovic in the semis.
At this point Nadal needs a victory over Djokvoic. Desperately. Having lost seven consecutive matches - all finals - to the world No. 1, it is paramount that Nadal find a way to solve the Djokovic puzzle before the French Open. In all likelihood the two will meet in at least two finals before Paris. If Nadal can't find a way to beat Djokovic in April or May, his chances for a record seventh French Open title in June will be greatly reduced.
Of course, something has to break. Nadal will eventually turn the tables against Djokovic. Right? It almost always works this way in rivalries. Almost.
John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl engaged in a classic back-and-forth in their long and heated rivalry as both counted extending winning streaks against the other. But then there are cases like Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors. After Connors dominated the early years of their brilliant tussles, Borg won their final 10 matches.
Yet it's hard to assign a historical analog to the Djokovic-Nadal rivalry. For one thing, they play such similar games. And this is what is driving Nadal crazy.
For so many years it was Nadal past whom no opponent could get a ball, it was Nadal who could turn defense into offense better than anyone, it was Nadal who could outlast any foe in a rally. But Djokovic is now the better defender and can alter the course of a point in frighteningly quick fashion, even when in a seemingly vulnerable position.
So what can Nadal do next? How can he change his game just enough without abandoning the basic style that has rewarded him so greatly for so many years?
For one thing, I look for Nadal to actually be more aggressive on the slow clay than he was when facing Djokovic on the hard courts of New York and Melbourne. While this may sound odd, considering that the slow red clay of Paris is ideally suited to the extended rallies that Nadal prefers, it is really Nadal's only option.
Nadal is an extremely sensitive champion - in his emotions, his habits and his confidence. He thrives when he is most at home, whether having his small, tightly knit group of supporters present or having red clay underfoot. And it is this, his utter ease on clay, that will allow him to open up his game and take more chances against Djokovic.
Because nothing else has worked the last year. The gap between them isn't that great, as evidenced by their thrilling six-hour Australian Open epic in which Nadal gave away a seemingly commanding 4-2 lead in the fifth set. And Nadal still holds the career edge over his great rival 16-14. Still, he needs a win.
And there are no courts on the planet where Nadal feels more comfortable than the courts in Monte Carlo. Nadal has won the event every time he has entered, capturing the last seven championships. Without Federer present at the event, it would be surprising if Nadal and Djokovic didn't meet for the championship next Sunday.
If they do indeed face off, Nadal will likely attack on short balls the way he learned to at Wimbledon. Nadal has no path to victory over Djokovic if he stays the course and continues to try to outslug the Serb from the baseline.
But to get in position to take advantage of any short balls, Nadal will need to shift his court positioning in the coming months when taking on Djokovic. Djokovic returns so well and takes command of points so early that it is incumbent on Nadal to stand on the baseline rather than several feet back. While this strategy has obviously served him well considering his 10 Grand Slam titles, Djokovic has taken advantage of Nadal's naturally defensive mindset. This is all easier said than done. It is human nature, and athletic instinct, to revert to what one is used to doing.
As for Djokovic, he can play as loose as possible. There is no winning streak like last year, when he entered Paris undefeated for the season. Even if he loses to Nadal once before the French Open, it won't mean much. However, a couple of Nadal victories would have significant impact. Djokovic will likely not feel pressure until the latter stages of Paris, when the constant talk of winning four consecutive Slam titles - not accomplished by a male since Rod Laver won the calendar-year Grand Slam in 1969 - may begin to impact his thoughts.
Never in this extraordinary era of Federer-Nadal-Djokovic has the opening to the clay-court season been so important. Gone are the days when it was just a warmup to Nadal's annual coronation in front of those French fans who have never warmed up to him. Now it's all intense from the start.
And Nadal knows that each tournament without a victory over Djokovic will edge him closer to the one word no great champion wants to hear: Futility.