Djokovic the joker gets serious about number 1
This year's tennis clay court season should see Novak Djokovic muscle in on the Nadal-Federer rivalry. The Serb has been in superb form so far this year and the Spanish world number one will have to work hard to stop him stealing the top spot.
By Rob Train
He likes a chuckle on court, does Novak Djokovic. Affectionately known as The Joker, one of the Serb’s favourite crowd pleasers – which he was cajoled into performing at the Rome Masters in 2009 – is an unerringly accurate impression of Rafa Nadal’s laborious pre-service routine.
But Nole, as Djokovic is also known, has said there will be no more impressions: a shame, as he also does a brilliant Maria Sharapova. The reason is simple; after a seven-year Nadal-Federer hegemony over the top two ranking spots, number two Djokovic has emerged as the most likely contender to dethrone the kings of the courts since the Swiss usurped Andy Roddick in February 2004.
Djokovic is unbeaten this season, with 24 consecutive victories and back-to-back wins over number one Nadal in the finals at Indian Wells and Miami. For good measure, the Serb beat Federer in the semifinals of the former, his third straight win against the Swiss. Before his California dream, he had not beaten Nadal since the round robin stage of the 2009 ATP World Tour Finals.
“I believe he will be number one, but I don’t feel his breath on my neck,” said Nadal earlier this month. “I don’t know if it will happen in one, two… it depends on my results on clay.”
Last season, the Spaniard became the first player to win all three clay-court Masters Series tournaments in the same season, going 22 matches unbeaten on his favoured surface, and adding the French Open and Wimbledon to his points haul.
Djokovic, during the same period, reached the semifinals in Monte Carlo and London and the quarterfinals in Rome and Paris while missing the Madrid Masters entirely.
In the current ranking, Djokovic has 9,700 points compared to Nadal’s 12,870, a difference of 3,170. But Djokovic has earned 2,810 already this season to Nadal’s 1,650 and only has 1,620 to defend between now and Wimbledon. Nadal, over the same period, has 7,000 in play.
Federer, for whom obituaries are still wildly ill-considered, is within achievable distance of Djokovic and can pick and choose his tournaments in the manner of a man with little else to prove. The Swiss master still has a little left in the bank and can cash in his experience at any major tournament if opportunity arises, as it did last year on the clay of Paris.
Whether or not the Serb is yet capable of beating Nadal on the same surface is a question that will be not be answered this week at Monte Carlo, where the Spaniard has won in each of the past six years. Djokovic has withdrawn from the tournament in the principality he calls home with a knee injury. The pressure to be number one – if indeed Nadal feels any over a prize that he has often described as secondary to other goals – is nonetheless not on Djokovic’s shoulders this week: the number two will gain ground on the top spot if Nadal, with 1,000 points in play, does anything less than he has since 2005 and fails to win.
Long live the king?
“He’s the king on this surface,” Djokovic conceded, not unreasonably with a 0-9 record against the Spaniard on clay. “But in 2009 I think I showed that I have the game to challenge him on clay. There were great matches in the semifinals in Madrid and the Monte Carlo final where I nearly beat him. I think was the best I have ever done. The good thing is I know that I’m playing well coming into the clay court season.”
A strong field in Monte Carlo may prove insufficient to stop Nadal and Djokovic is not inscribed to play in Barcelona, but he will feature in his home tournament in Belgrade. That makes a first clay court skirmish of the year likely in Madrid, the scene of the longest three-set match in Open Era history between the two in the 2009 semifinals.
Nadal won that day on his way to consolidating his position as the undisputed king of clay. On current form, it may well be the erstwhile court jester who commits regicide in Madrid, Paris or Rome before this year’s clay court season reaches its denouement. By the time the grass in SE7 has also been reduced to dust, Djokovic may be doing more than impersonations of a world number one.
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Published: Apr 11 2011
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