Thinking about the way Novak Djokovic handled Rafael Nadal in the final of the Mutua Madrid Open, extending his unbeaten streak to 34 matches and halting Nadal's streak of clay-court wins at 37, I'm tempted to utter those three fateful words: This. Changes. Everything.
Notice I said "tempted."
Madrid, after all, represented Djokovic's first-ever win over Nadal on a clay court. That would be the same Nadal who ran the table of red-dirt events during the Euro-clay segment last year, the same Rafa who backed up that perfect spring by winning his fifth French Open title in six years.
And just how many times has Djokovic won that red-dirt Grand Slam event? None. And Nadal has won 14 Masters Series titles on clay, to Djokovic's one (Rome 2008).
What the win does change, though, is the feeling Nadal is well-nigh invincible on clay; that notion was beaten into us by Nadal until it became an underlying article of faith. We decided some time ago there are no answers to the questions Nadal puts to opponents. But Sunday, Djokovic was the one asking questions, and Nadal was the one groping unsuccessfully for answers.
Here are five reasons why Djokovic was able to throttle Nadal in straight sets (whoever heard of such a thing!) in a big final without benefit of any mitigating circumstances.
1. Djokovic has the momentum: Glorious as the story of Nadal's success on clay has been, let's face it, the saga was getting a little old, perhaps even in Nadal's mind. I mean, every belly eventually fills up, every engine begins to sputter.
By contrast, Djokovic is on the upswing. On hard courts during the first quarter of the year, he pulled off exactly what Nadal habitually does on clay in the spring. And just as Nadal's prowess on clay helped give him the confidence to master grass (and, finally, hard courts), Djokovic's winning habit gave him the confidence to look into Nadal's eyes on clay without blinking.
2. He's fit: Djokovic often struggled on clay and had a somewhat bizarre assortment of physical problems, including respiratory ailments and allergies. He created the impression that he was surprisingly delicate and could always be worn down. He lacked that iron-man gene that's a requisite for outlasting a player such as Nadal.
But Djokovic eventually recognized the importance of comprehensive fitness, and he's been in the best shape of his life this year. He's even embraced a gluten-free diet intended to keep him a lean, mean, stroking machine. It shows.
3. Djokovic uses all of his opponent's court: This is a little tricky, but he (along with Juan Martin del Potro) has a way of making his opponent's side of the court look twice as big as his side. That's because he gets great penetration and angles, and with plenty of pace and a fairly flat ball, he stretches the boundaries.
Nadal has bewitched us with that vicious top spin of his, especially on the forehand. But no matter how you cut it, radical top spin usually precludes getting great depth on your shot, and because of the exaggerated parabola and comparatively slow speed of the ball, an opponent with the skills of a Djokovic can play from further inside the court and even take the ball on the rise. In other words, he plays on a smaller court, which is by definition easier to defend.
4. That backhand: This ties in a little with point No. 3. Djokovic can handle Nadal's forehand with his two-handed backhand and actually push Nadal around it. To really appreciate just how big an asset that is, just think about how much trouble that Nadal forehand always caused for Roger Federer (who hits a one-handed backhand).
Nadal seemed bent on breaking down that Djokovic backhand Sunday. Not only did he fail in that, the backhand was Djokovic's most lethal, productive shot throughout the match.
5. Djokovic's patience: There were glimmers of this in all of Djokovic's matches with Nadal going back to the U.S. Open final last fall. But it still bears noting. Djokovic is in no great hurry to end the point when he's playing Nadal, yet he's willing to pull the trigger on a placement whenever the opportunity presents itself. He's hit the perfect balance between aggression and opportunism. Many of his peers, and rivals to both men, play as if they feel they have to do too much, too quickly to stand a chance against Nadal. They hear the clock ticking. Not Djokovic, not anymore.
Let's see what the next few weeks bring, because it's unlikely Nadal will take this incursion into his kingdom lying down.