Rafael Nadal: To beat the devil

You're Rafael Nadal and you're in hell. Your hell is knowing that Novak Djokovic, the man in front of you, the man who took your No. 1 ranking from you, has now beaten you seven straight times, all of them in finals, the last three in Grand Slams. Your hell is knowing that the old conventions, which were good enough to beat back Roger Federer and Andy Murray, and won you 10 major titles, do not work against this one opponent. Your hell is knowing that today Novak Djokovic is a better tennis player than you.

When there was the elegance and precision and dominance of Federer with which to deal, Nadal was unaffected. Federer could beat everyone consistently, except him.

When there were the better tools of Murray -- a better serve, a better backhand, an equally strong return, terrific movement and defense -- with which to deal, Nadal knew he would still win. He was in superior shape, always tougher, always secure in the knowledge that when the marathon reached its final miles, Murray would break physically and mentally when Nadal made his kick.

Even when there was Djokovic (the old Djokovic), Nadal knew the game plan that worked against Murray would work as well against the Serbian because Nadal's toughness was the difference in their previous meetings. Nadal would not be the one who blinked on rallies. He would punish with the forehand and break his will by getting to that one more ball, by keeping the point alive. The old Djokovic eventually would collapse, mentally or physically, with his serve or his forehand.

When Djokovic suddenly began beating him last year, first on the hard courts at Indian Wells and Miami, then on clay in Madrid and Rome, then on grass at Wimbledon, and finally on the U.S. Open hard court, Nadal regrouped. He admitted that Djokovic was in his head, admitted he needed a new strategy, admitted he was going to have to work harder to overcome this opponent.

Now, after the Australian Open final last weekend, perhaps the greatest match either of them has ever played, five hours and 53 minutes of spectacular shot-making and heart, Nadal faces his hell: the recognition that Djokovic can handle everything he has to offer on a tennis court. And it's the best thing that could happen to Nadal and to tennis.

The darkness at the bottom, which is where Nadal clearly is with Djokovic right now, is exactly the place he needs to be to begin the return back into the light. Despite the exhausting nature of his defeat in Melbourne, Nadal can know now that he is closer to beating Djokovic than he's been in over a year, if he chooses to believe.
And if he does believe, and learns from the millimeter-width margin of his defeat in Melbourne, the next several matchups between the two -- potentially the two American Masters 1000 events at Indian Wells and Miami in March, followed by the clay season and the French Open in May -- could be even better than the great tennis of recent years.

When Djokovic last lost to Nadal, in the 2010 U.S. Open final, his own epiphany, his own hell moment, came. In that match, Djokovic realized how close he was, how his best could beat anyone else's best except Nadal -- a belief realized when Djokovic carried Serbia to its first Davis Cup victory. Djokovic knew Nadal was in better shape, and that had to change. He knew he needed to be more precise with his shots, more mentally tough, more convinced. He knew Nadal's aura rested in the Spaniard's unbending belief in his game, knew that Federer held the same power, and knew that he was destined to be the greatest No. 3 player of all time if he did not recalibrate.

He did, and in the process produced one of the greatest seasons in the history of the sport. Djokovic beat Murray in the 2011 Aussie final, and Nadal throughout the past year. The wins were close at first; and as 2011 went on, became more lopsided. At the U.S. Open, Djokovic easily handled Nadal in four sets, not because Nadal stopped fighting but because Djokovic cruised through easy service games while Nadal struggled just to hold serve. Djokovic exposed Nadal's susceptibility to the wide backhand in the deuce courts -- a Nadal weakness first exposed by Federer at the Barclays Masters in 2010, but a weakness Federer has been curiously uncommitted about exploiting extensively in their subsequent matches both on serves and in rallies. Djokovic exposed Nadal's lack of return depth by punishing him with the backhand and forehand. Djokovic exposed Nadal's lack of a backhand weapon while simultaneously developing his down-line backhand as one of the devastating shots in the game.

Djokovic frustrated Nadal the same way Nadal frustrates everyone else: by getting to balls that no human being has a right to reach, by forcing Nadal both to play another shot and overcompensate in future rallies by trying to hit the ball harder and faster to break Djokovic's impregnable defenses -- a recipe for fatal mistakes.

By the end of 2011, it was clear that Djokovic had become everything Nadal already was and more. He was just as tough, just as fit and just as hungry, but with a better serve, a better return game, a better backhand and the mental edge of having been perfect against him in head-to-head meetings.

After winning the first set in Sunday's finale, Nadal appeared to make the mistake of believing his old game was going to be enough to beat Djokovic. Where he hammered at the Djokovic forehand in the first set, he returned balls back short to the middle of the service line in the second and third while Djokovic battered him with forehands and backhands down the line. Where he powered serves nearing 120 mph in the first set, Nadal spun in some serves weakly as the match progressed, and Djokovic broke his serve easily. Nadal was pushed so far behind the baseline by Djokovic's assault that the match looked over.

The old patterns returned, and continued into the fourth set -- when Nadal saw his hell moment, seized the opportunity and returned to produce some of the greatest tennis of his career.

The hell moment came with Nadal serving, down four games to three and 0-40, about to go down 5-3 and likely lose the match in four uneventful sets, as he did to Djokovic in last year's Wimbledon and again in the U.S. Open final. Nadal realized that everything else in his tennis game was dead -- killed by Djokovic -- and only the fighter in him remained. It was then that the rivalry returned, and the formula to beat Djokovic revealed itself.

He blasted forehands to Djokovic's forehand with precision and focus, kept the ball from the center of the court, didn't allow Djokovic to set up the backhand. He pushed Djokovic off the court with the forehand and served hard -- with variety in the ad court, to the body in the deuce. He fought with such concentration that he might have missed opportunities to attack Djokovic down the line; but when he and his coaches review the fourth and fifth sets, they will see the opportunities were available.

Nadal found, also, that his ferocity wore down Djokovic, made him look human, made him look vulnerable -- and he was. Had Nadal implemented such focus and strategy in the second and third sets instead of too late in the fourth and fifth, he might have been the one hoisting his 11th major title. He won the tiebreak in the fourth and was the stronger player in the fifth until, serving 4-2, 30-15, the fatal missed backhand.

Like last year's U.S. Open against Federer, when Djokovic was down two match points at 5-3 and then made the return of his life and didn't lose another game, Djokovic took the sliver of sunlight and kicked the door down on Nadal, losing only one more game the rest of the way.

Nadal must remember that he is still in the early chapters with Djokovic, who may become his greatest rival. In his history with Federer, Nadal has always been in control. Federer has never beaten Nadal more than three consecutive times. But with Djokovic, the rivalry is more cyclical, more streaky. Nadal beat Djokovic in 14 of their first 18 meetings, including five straight from 2008 to '09. Now, Djokovic has beaten Nadal in 10 of their past 13. Their streaky rivalry mirrors that of John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl, where each enjoyed win streaks over the other of at least five matches.

The next act begins now. As the season moves forward, Nadal has a choice: He can lament and agonize over the missed opportunities in the second and third sets last weekend when he lost his way. He can writhe over the infamous missed backhand in the fifth set that would've put him a point away from 5-2, to think about the forehands that just clipped the tape. If he does that, Djokovic will steamroller him on his way to the first Grand Slam since Rod Laver in 1969.

Or, he can embrace his hell moment and realize that even in defeat, he is now liberated from Djokovic. He knows he can win. He knows Djokovic had to become fitter, more mentally tough, to catch him. If he didn't know it before, Nadal learned late in the final that his current backhand, serve and his return depth are not enough -- but the increased power he applied in the final two sets were sufficient to beat Djokovic. Through his stirring comeback, he slew the mental edge Djokovic had over him. The rest is work, and the blueprint for doing it was revealed in the epic fourth and fifth sets. Nadal is closer than it may appear.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com. He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/hbryant42.