Novak Djokovic’s 6-3, 6-4 win over Rafael Nadal in the Beijing final did absolutely nothing to diminish the notion that this week was all about Nadal. Specifically, it was about the 27-year-old conquering injury and self-doubt to recapture the world No. 1 ranking he lost to Djokovic on the Fourth of July in 2011.
The match also did little to dampen the feeling in some quarters that Nadal has re-asserted himself in this rivalry. Conventional wisdom suggests this was a week Djokovic just as soon would like to forget. But was it?
Start with this: Nadal’s great accomplishment this week was created independent of Djokovic; the new No. 1 didn’t have to wrench the ranking out of the hands of his rival as much as out-statistic him. Sure, Nadal proved himself a few times over in recent matches with Djokovic -- three times, if you want to be precise (the semifinals of Roland Garros and the Montreal Masters 1000, and the final of the US Open).
But in some ways, the exchange of ranking places (Djokovic is now No. 2) is less about their rivalry than about each man’s relative consistency against all comers. And that has nothing to do with their head-to-head rivalry, as all of those clay-court matches between Nadal and Roger Federer also demonstrated in years past.
There’s no question that Nadal is the man of the hour in the ATP, and playing the best tennis -- by far -- of anyone this year. It’s also a reality that Nadal was in a strange mental place Sunday, having to play his most dangerous rival. But only one thing really counts when it comes to their rivalry: Djokovic blasted Nadal off the court in Beijing.
One day, we may look back on this result as a critical one in what is already a rivalry for the ages. No two male titans have clashed as often as Nadal and Djokovic, and while they aren’t exactly in Chrissie-Martina territory just yet (the women faced each other 80 times), the 38 matches they have played (Nadal leads 22-16) are the most by any two men in the Open era.
It’s almost painful to think how Djokovic would have felt had he left Beijing a loser to Nadal. Djokovic was the three-time defending champion, and he rode an 18-match winning streak into the final. A loss to Nadal possibly would have cast the entire week’s events in a very different light. As Djokovic himself admitted after the final: "I needed this win today ... It’s very important mentally and emotionally."
Translation: Djokovic will not be kept awake at night now, wondering how he let it all slip away. He may be powerless to change the past, but he was able to avenge himself against Nadal in the only way that matters -- on the court. And we know how it is with these two: The smallest shift in attitude, confidence, strategy or execution either way can reverse whichever way the tide is running.
Djokovic is likely to look at this win over Nadal as a brisk tap on the reset button. He will probably regret some of the self-injurious decisions and lost opportunities that allowed Nadal to hornswoggle him this year (their three matches extended over 12 sets, one fewer than the maximum possible). But Djokovic is entitled to feel he has something to build on starting today, and not just because the final demonstrated how critical it is for even a great returner and defender to serve with maximum efficiency. The inevitable changing of the guard has occurred, but Djokovic also has reversed his three-match skid against Nadal.
Starting right now, Djokovic also will find himself back in the role of the hunter rather than the hunted, and that’s a far more familiar role for him. Perhaps it will inspire or loosen him. And though the timing of this return to No. 1 in the waning weeks of the schedule seems propitious for Nadal (he’s pretty much a lock to finish the year at No. 1), in the next few weeks, Nadal be playing on Djokovic’s terms and turf. They could meet three, four more times.
Nadal’s future may not be quite as bright as his partisans hope, and Djokovic’s not nearly as bleak as it may seem. The coda written by Djokovic in his farewell to Beijing is "to be continued … "