By Peter Bodo, Tennis.com
If Novak Djokovic's Monday in Rome had been a fishing expedition instead of an ATP Masters final, he might have returned home to report that he'd hooked seven fish and lost them all -- but one.
And Rafael Nadal, being an angler, might have understood and commiserated -- were it not for the fact that in this scenario, he had been the fish.
Besides, Rafa certainly was in no mood to express sympathy based on recent history; he'd won just one of his eight most recent clashes with the world No. 1. Today he improved that record to two of nine as he prevailed, 7-5, 6-3, but it was not quite the comprehensive beating the score suggests.
For one thing, Djokovic squandered an unusually high number of opportunities; for another, he had nothing to do with one of the most significant of those fallow chances. And that one wasn't even a break point -- not unless you count the way Nole smashed his racquet to pieces against the net post soon after it played out.
Nadal drew first blood in the match while receiving at two-all. He made a mess of a break point with a glaring forehand error, but from deuce he forced a Djokovic backhand error after a long rally. Djokovic then tried a silly backhand drop shot that Nadal easily ran down and converted into a winner to earn the break.
We all know that Djokovic has had Nadal somewhat hypnotized recently, so it was no surprise when Djokovic broke right back in the next game. It was a poor game by Nadal, despite a lapse by Djokovic that allowed Nadal to claw back from 0-30 to 30-all. But Nadal then failed to put a first serve in for the next two points, lost them both (to be broken), and when Djokovic raced through his ensuing service game with ease to lead 4-3, Nadal fans had to be thinking: "Uh-oh, here we go again."
Rafa struggled but held the next game, after which Djokovic slashed through to a 5-4 lead. At 30-all in the next game, with Rafa serving, the men engaged in yet another of the atomic rallies that have become their specialty, and it appeared to end with a Djokovic forehand winner down-the-line—a shot that would have given him set point against an increasingly uncertain Nadal. But the ball was erroneously called out, calling for a replay of the point.
Djokovic was incensed -- so much so that he lost his composure. He distractedly surrendered the game with two unforced errors before the points could even properly be said to have begun. His bad mood carried over into the next game, in which he struggled to recover his focus but never quite made it. Nadal won the game on his first break point after deuce, when the men exchanged drop shots and Nadal cleverly poked a backhand into the open court. That put Nadal in position to serve for the set at 6-5.
Djokovic busted up his racquet on the change-of-ends. And Nadal served out the set.
Nadal kicked off the second set with yet another break, but he would give Djokovic a few more choice opportunities to get back into the match. Serving the second game, Nadal experienced a letdown and fell behind 0-40. Serve and overhead winners won him two points, but Novak gifted him with the third and most critical one, with an unforced error with the backhand. Djokovic would have another break point in that game, but he wasted that one too, with a forehand error.
Djokovic managed a hold in the next game to stay within reach at 1-2, and had two more break point opportunities against Nadal's next service game. He blew the first and then the second, the latter in a way that could almost be emblematic of his problems: Nole bungled a set-up inside-out forehand, the kind that has become his stock in trade in his rise to the top. It was the sixth break point he failed to capitalize on, and his last. He never threatened after that.
It may seem like the gods were in conspiracy against Djokovic, but Nadal must get a lot of credit on three fronts. His newfound strategy of serving to Djokovic's forehand paid off in this match, and not necessarily because of Nole's problems on the day. As in Monte Carlo, it seemed that Djokovic's forehand return is not nearly as effective in earning him control of the point, and Nadal has caught onto it.
As well, Nadal's defense was once again superb. He was as nimble as ever, changing direction as swiftly as if he were wired to a game console. He re-directed the ball with flair that could only be described as Nole-esque, and once again seemed to win the athleticism contest. Unless Djokovic regains the consistency he had last year (he made nearly twice as many unforced errors as Nadal in this one, 41-21), he'll be chasing Nadal's dust all the way to London.
And finally, Nadal has for some time recited the mantra that he must be patient, must keep working, must keep trying to improve little things in his game if he hopes to remain competitive with Djokovic. Today, those virtues all came into play. Knowing how much of this game is played between the ears of the competitors, Nadal's renewed domination of the clay-court game is the main theme as we head for Paris and the French Open.
This was a nice little fishing trip, but the next one is going to be a buck hunt.