The most promising show in tennis is back in town. Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic will square off yet again – this time in the finals of the China Open in Beijing. The peripherals have been put to bed – with Nadal sealing the number one spot on Saturday, it gives both players the opportunity to go out there and give it their best without any dangling weight on their shoulders.
Welcome to the 38th episode of a rivalry that has hijacked the attention of the tennis world. The intensity of the brutal battles between the top two men in tennis have taken the spotlight firmly away from Roger Federer to establish a new order in tennis. And anything less than a three setter will prove to be a mighty disappointment for fans around the world.
Irrespective of what might transpire on court this Sunday, this is now the biggest rivalry of the open era in terms of volume. Rafa and Djokovic will surpass the rivalry between John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl in terms of number of duels and emulate them in terms of finals contested. It will be the 18th final between the two players, with Nadal enjoying a marginal 9-8 advantage over his arch rival. It is this fact that makes the rivalry between the two far more compelling than the one between Rafa and Federer, where the Spaniard has a runaway 14-6 edge in all finals.
The prolific encounters between the two take on even more impressive hue when you consider that they only met for the first time at the French Open in 2006. In the ensuing seven years, the duo have battled with visceral urgency on practically every stage imaginable. The two have contested for pride at the Olympics, in the Davis Cup, at the lower rung 250 events, at the ATP Masters Series 1000 events and of course an imposing 11 matches at the grand slams. Sunday will mark their first encounter in a 500 point tournament, completing a full set of matches at every level on the tour and whilst donning national colours.
The rivalry had relatively humble beginnings – as a side show and an appetiser to the match that everyone eagerly waited for, the one that featured a nearly divine Federer against the beast in Nadal. The Spaniard had the early advantage, during a time when Djokovic was still learning to teach his fragile body the means to extract the maximum out of his imposing yet inconsistent talents. The rivalry took on a different shade once Djokovic overcame his physical struggle with a gluten free diet and a new found discipline.
The Serbian strung together a series of important victories between November 2010 and the Monte Carlo Masters in the summer of 2012. Striding with purpose and power, Djokovic launched a relentless tirade against Nadal to win seven matches in a row during the most impressive phase of his career. But the Spaniard is far from the kind that would accept defeat and walk away quietly. Instead he spent endless hours on the practice court pounding his body and punishing his soul to discover the vexing answers needed to deal with Djokovic’s belligerence.
Djokovic was able to dominate Nadal by punishing his second serve and using his two handed backhand up the line to push the Spaniard on the defensive. The power on Djokovic’s returns and backhand forced Nadal behind the court on the backhand side, opening up an opportunity for Djokovic to nail a winner off either flank. But Nadal intensified his training by working with his uncle to make improvements to his second serve and the backhand.
Never shy of effort, Nadal’s work ethic and immense reserves of patience helped him lengthen rallies and take advantage of his consistency from the back of the court. Using both power and top spin Nadal found the means to keep Djokovic from taking control over the baseline. The matador from Mallorca also learnt the art of taking the attack to his opponent by stretching him wide off the ad-court. Nadal’s inside out forehand has meant that Djokovic has enjoyed lesser time to gain the steadiness of position that was needed to control the game with his immense backhand.
One telling statistic is Nadal’s ability to grind his way to victory. In their most recent duel at the US Open finals, Nadal won 64 of the 111 points that stretched beyond five strokes. Yes, Djokovic did prevail in that 54 stroke rally that turned an entire stadium numb in delight. But it proved to be just a vain consolation as Nadal drew his opponent into rally after bruising rally to prevail over his opponent. Having lost three in a row and twice on his favoured hard courts, Djokovic has a task at hand to reverse the tide that his opponent is riding with single minded determination.
Nadal is surfing a wave of confidence, even as Djokovic has begun to deal with the unseemly demons that dance in the mind. The Spaniard has an imposing 25 match streak on hard courts this season. The fact that he has lost just three of 68 matches this year has made him believe that everything is possible. Nadal has made the finals of every tournament he played this year, with the exception of Wimbledon. In contrast, Djokovic has suffered nine losses and is yet to win a title since that victory over Nadal at Monte Carlo in April.
The top ranking awaits Nadal on Monday, but the disciplined warrior is barely the kind that gets distracted by such trivia. He will be eager to stamp his renewed authority over Djokovic and underline the fact that he is indeed the best player on tour. There is barely any doubt about who has owned the season – Nadal already has ten titles, to just three for his opponent this year. Andy Murray is the second most successful player, but even his collection of four titles are not even a patch on Nadal’s apparent dominance.
The Serbian will have to set aside the disappointment of losing the top billing and do so quickly. There is only pride at stake on Sunday, but Djokovic needs it far more than his storied rival. The current world No.1 will have to hit the court running and take control of the first set to harbour any dreams of stalling the juggernaut across the court. If Djokovic fails to exercise early control, he can be certain that Nadal will feast upon him without the slightest remorse.