At the end of it all, Novak Djokovic went over to his corner and screamed. It was a scream of joy and before he knew it, everyone in his entourage had joined in. And in the stunned silence of Madrid, these screams almost sounded like a war cry to all comers: Do you dare to face me?
In 32 matches this year, Djokovic has yet to face defeat but he was expected to finally grind to a halt against world number one Rafael Nadal on Sunday. The Spaniard, himself, was on a 37-match winning streak on clay, had just beaten Federer in the semi-finals and is said to be well nigh unbeatable on the surface.
But instead what one saw yesterday afternoon on the courts of Madrid even managed to subdue the famously partisan crowd. For the first time in ten matches, Djokovic managed to beat Nadal on clay and even more impressive was the fact that he managed to do it in straight sets 7-5, 6-4 in 2 hours and 17 minutes.
There’s a curious stat about Djokovic that the other players will probably soon catch on to. Everytime he wins the first set in the final, he goes on to win the match as well. The streak is now up to 19 finals and the latest victim was the master of clay, Nadal himself.
Soon, we’ll have players pushing themselves very hard just to put Djokovic on the back foot early in the match. But for now, he seems to be untouchable.
The Madrid Masters was expected to be the Serbian’s true test for many reasons – he was playing on his least favourite surface; Nadal, on the other hand, was brought up on clay courts and most importantly, Djokovic was returning after an injury break. Would that stall his momentum? Would that help end is 31-match winning streak?
Former world number one Carlos Moya, a good friend of Nadal, was watching in the stands as was Cristiano Ronaldo but no amount of inspiration could have helped the 24-year-old Spaniard.
Every Djokovic victory over Nadal these days is accompanied by the same kind of disbelief that we felt when the Spaniard would beat Roger Federer. It’s almost as if change is in the air once again.
When Djokovic first burst on to the scene, this is how he was expected to challenge Federer but then he faded badly. Questions about his mental toughness abounded. But now, he’s playing tennis from another planet.
He was 4-0 up in the first set but Nadal fought back to level in at 5-5. The old Djokovic would have crumbled at this point but yesterday, the steel in his eyes was there for all to see. He easily held his game and then broke Nadal to take the first set.
Then again, Nadal stormed Djokovic – breaking him in the first game of the second set. The crowd, by now, was starting to get involved, and the famous ‘Vamos’ shout had been heard more than a couple of times.
But the Serbian, who at 23 is even younger than Nadal, calmly soaked up the pressure and came back to immediately break back, Nadal wasn’t playing badly but he was being forced to scamper around and that meant he was never really being able to impart a lot of top spin on the ball. The last person to beat Nadal on clay was Soderling at French Open in 2009 and his strategy had been somewhat similar..
Djokovic was aggressive, he took the game to Nadal, endured the long rallies and in the end, the left-hander was the player who looked tired.
During the game, Nadal tried very hard to attack the backhand. He believed that his forehand would be powerful enough to emerge victorious. But Djokovic’s backhand had a divine quality to it on Sunday. The technique was watertight and the execution – ruthless.
The Serbian has now beaten Nadal in three straight finals – Indian Wells, Miami and now Madrid. The last one counts the most because he’s managed to beat the best player in the world on his favourite surface in his den. Seriously, it can’t get any better.