If Rafael Nadal felt he had definitively re-established himself as the pre-eminent force on clay in men’s tennis by winning last year’s French Open, he did not account for Novak Djokovic.
Victory over Robin Soderling in last year’s final restored Nadal’s reputation as the king of Roland Garros, 12 months after he had conceded his title to Roger Federer.
He could not have imagined, however, that Djokovic would find his feet on the surface this year and having lost to the Serb in the finals of the Madrid and Rome Masters events, Nadal’s crown appears to be slipping.
After going down 7-5, 6-4 in Madrid, Nadal was beaten 6-4, 6-4 in Rome last Sunday, despite having beaten Djokovic in all nine of their previous meetings on clay.
The pair fought out a record-breaking four-hour marathon in the Madrid semis in 2009, with Nadal eventually prevailing 3-6, 7-6 (7/5), 7-6 (11/9), but, on the whole, Djokovic had rarely troubled Nadal on the dirt.
The Spaniard prevailed in their first three meetings at Roland Garros between 2006 and 2008 without losing a set and also emerged triumphant in last year’s Monte Carlo Masters and Rome Masters finals.
Djokovic has taken the upper hand this year, though, beating the world No. 1 in four Masters finals, while constructing an unbeaten 37-match run that is only five matches short of John McEnroe’s all-time season start record.
Despite having won five French Open titles in six years, Nadal will be in the unfamiliar position of arriving at Roland Garros with the spotlight on someone else.
He says, however, that Djokovic’s astonishing form cannot go on forever.
“For me, it doesn’t matter if people think I am more beatable than before. The important thing is to be confident and happy with what I’m doing and to do everything I can,” he said. “It won’t continue like this forever because it’s impossible. I wish him the best, but I will keep trying.”
Last Sunday’s defeat in the Italian capital was only Nadal’s eighth loss on clay in 201 matches on the surface.
The 24-year-old concedes that Djokovic’s current form makes him a formidable opponent, but says he has no reason to feel intimidated by the rangy right-hander from Belgrade.
“He’s a complete player, he can do everything,” Nadal said. “He defends very well, better than he did before. He can attack very well, like he did before. He’s very, very good, that’s the problem.”
“He has all the shots. He beat me in the last four Masters, but I beat him in lots of important things in the past: the semi-finals of the Olympics, the final of the US Open, two semi-finals at Roland Garros,” Nadal said. “We will see what happens in the future.”
As well as puncturing Nadal’s aura of invincibility on clay, Djokovic has closed the world ranking gap to just 405 points and will leapfrog Nadal atop the standings if he reaches the final in Paris.
The 23-year-old world No. 2 has also emulated Nadal by becoming only the second player since 1990 to qualify for the season-ending ATP World Tour Finals before the French Open.
For all his astonishing progress, however, Djokovic still considers Nadal the man to beat.
“He’s the king of clay,” Djokovic said. “He’s the best ever to play on this surface. He’s been so dominant on clay courts.”
“Yes, I won two matches in the last eight days and that’s incredible for me, it gives me a lot of confidence ahead of the French Open,” Djokovic said. “But it’s just two tournaments, whereas he’s been so dominant for so many years.”