The unthinkable happened almost a week ago. The reigning Australian Open Champion and world number one Novak Djokovic ended Rafael Nadal’s incredible run at the Monte Carlo Masters, which saw the Spaniard win eight successive titles, winning 46 straight matches during this period.
By doing so, the Serb became the first player to beat Nadal, who is widely hailed as the greatest clay court player of all times, three times on the red European dirt. What is more impressive, all of these three wins have been straight-sets affairs.
However, Nadal still leads the head-to-head series between the pair by 19 wins to 15.
The last decade saw the emergence of arguably the greatest tennis player of all times in Roger Federer. The Swiss maestro, who has got a record 17 grand slam titles to his name, took the game to new heights, mesmerizing the game’s audience with an elegant and flawless brand of tennis hitherto unseen.
Federer ruled all and conquered all. None could stand the might of this great champion who went on a record-breaking spree, dismantling a talented set of players in Marat Safin, Andy Roddick (who has lost four grand slam finals to the Swiss), Lleyton Hewitt, David Nalbandian, and Juan Carlos Ferrero in the path. Perhaps in another era, these players would have had a good number of silverwares to show for had it not been for Federer’s presence.
But then came a machine, seemingly designed to undo Federer’s monopoly in the game. Rafael Nadal made a resounding entry into the professional circuitry, dispatching Federer in the first meeting between the two at the hard court of Miami Open. The Spaniard’s thumping forehand, the top spin he applied to the ball and his phenomenal court covering soon became the hot topics of discussion.
Nadal then beat Federer in a pulsating four-set French Open semi-final to prove that his earlier win over the Swiss was not a one-off thing. A year later, he topped Federer three more times on his beloved clay court surface and earned himself the ‘king of clay’ appellation.
He boosts an impressive 19-10 head-to-head record over Federer, including six wins in grand slam finals.
Nadal is dominantly a baseline player who likes to play deep into the court. The 26-year-old likes to play defensively and operates on a strategy which involves drawing errors from his opponent’s racquet. Besides, he has got an excellent passing shot up his sleeve and a forehand which is rated by many as the best in the game.
However, like Federer, backhand is the weak link in Nadal’s game. And it is the exploitation of this weakness which can be attributed to Djokovic’s recent successes over the Spaniard.
Though Djokovic can still not be placed in the same bracket as Nadal and Federer, perhaps the Serb has got no major weakness in his game. Nadal has got a good first serve, a powerful forehand and a backhand which has amounted to the undoing of many of his opponents. It is, in fact, his backhand which has given him the upper hand over Nadal as he has the potential to attack from either side of the court.
Both Nadal and Djokovic are dominantly baseline players and are exceptional returners of serve. Hence, their matches are marked by long rallies and multiple exchange of breaks. Majority of the shots which Djokovic plays against Nadal are aimed at the Spaniard’s weak backhand, which give him the upper hand in a rally. Furthermore, Nadal’s not-so-strong first serve allows Nole to deliver a deep return and as a result, dominate the point.
Solid return of serve and a good baseline defensive game are two precious tools required by any player to fare well on the European clay courts. Djokovic possesses both of these weapons and has got a strong serve and piercing backhand to add to that.
Djokovic’s historic win over Nadal in Monte Carlo was alarming to say the least for the Spaniard. With seven French Open titles in eight years under his belt, the Mallorcan will definitely head to Paris as an overwhelming favourite for many.
But for those who believe in signs and portents, Djokovic ending Nadal’s eight-year long Monte Carlo reign could mean that the Belgrade native is ready to lift the French Open trophy this year and complete his career slam.
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