You have to hand it to Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. After a few weeks, you had to wonder whether either of them was even capable of making the French Open final, never mind meeting his counterpart. But they resurrected the narrative, and once again, set tennis fans to salivating over the prospect of Rafa vs. Nole at Roland Garros.
They did it by playing a magnificent Italian Open final Sunday in Rome, with ATP No. 2 Djokovic pulling off the upset of world No. 1 Nadal, 4-6, 6-3. 6-3. An awful lot can happen to either of these fellas over the next three weeks, not all of it good. But they’ve certainly set the stage for a potential clash that might ultimately inspire comparisons with Nadal vs. Roger Federer at Wimbledon, Pete Sampras vs. Andre Agassi at the U.S. Open or Ivan Lendl vs. John McEnroe at Roland Garros.
Here are some of the takeaways from the Rome final:
1. Djokovic has now won four in a row vs. Nadal, all of them finals. Remember how Nadal fans used to gloat about Rafa being in Federer’s head? Well, here’s a good example of karma at work. Djokovic is the only player whom Nadal really seems to fear (all other things being equal), and there are some really good reasons for that. Which brings us to the next point.
2. Djokovic is the only player on the tour who can keep Nadal from putting him into a defensive posture from which there is no escape. Nadal specializes in getting his opponents on a string and jerking them all over the court, usually wider and wider and deeper and deeper. But Djokovic’s superior athleticism and his penchant for the hard, flat ball can translate to instant offense. He can hurt Nadal from a different zip code if need be, and that forces Nadal out of the patterns he likes to impose.
3. Nadal is vulnerable to Djokovic’s outstanding serve return. As a returner, Djokovic is more inclined than Nadal to give the ball a ride. When he sees a second serve coming, his instinct is to use the return to take control of the rally. Nadal had an outstanding day in the service game, at least in terms of putting his first serve into play (75 percent). But Djokovic won 13 points off the 23 second serves hit by Nadal. In the end, Nadal won just 52 percent of the points he served, while Djokovic won 65 percent of his own.
4. Djokovic is especially dangerous when he’s inspired. Before Djokovic experienced his 2011 makeover, he was developing a reputation as a spectacularly talented underachiever. He seemed happy to noodle around, a third wheel to the ruling duo of Nadal and Federer. Then in 2011, Djokovic showed what he’s capable of when he puts his mind -- and heart -- into it.
Last week, Djokovic dedicated his wins to the victims of the terrible floods that swept through the Balkans, including his home town of Belgrade. The tragic events provided Djokovic with emotional fuel that helped him win -- hence the heart in the clay after he defeated Nadal. He was declaring his solidarity. The downside, of course, is that when he’s uninspired, Djokovic is less dangerous. Nadal, who is -- by far -- the most diligent and motivated of players, has an advantage in this regard. Neither his highs nor his lows are as conspicuous as those of Djokovic.
And here’s an important caveat to this theme: The stade Roland Garros isn’t merely Nadal’s favorite facility, it’s his castle. A lot has been made of the fact that he uncharacteristically won only one of the Euroclay events this spring, but really, how many times does Nadal have to win Monte Carlo, anyway? Those losses won’t amount to a hill of beans for Nadal -- if he retains his French Open crown. Djokovic may be more theatrical when it comes to the emotional game, but don’t for a moment imagine that Nadal isn’t also subject to bouts of inspiration.
5. Djokovic closed out Nadal in that third set with a flurry of tennis as near perfect as anyone can expect. But if that were the final of Roland Garros, the end of that set probably would have marked just a little better than the midway point of the match (on the theory that even at the worst of times, these guys are good for a long five-setter).