Thursday, May 19, 2011

Djokovic beats Nadal again on clay, sets stage for epic French Open

Novak Djokovic did the impossible again.

For the second straight week, the world No. 2 defeated Rafael Nadal in a clay court final, stunning the top-ranked Spaniard 6-4, 6-4 at the Italian Open. The win was Djokovic's fourth-consecutive victory over Nadal, extends his season-opening winning streak to 37 and, without a doubt, establishes him as the hottest tennis player in the world. It may even make him the favorite at next week's French Open, a statement that would have been considered blasphemous as recently as eight days ago.

Djokovic was flawless on Sunday, unleashing his powerful forehand with pinpoint accuracy and taking command of points early. Nadal opened the match playing long rallies, seemingly content to capitalize on Djokovic's fatigue from his semifinal marathon against Andy Murray. An early break changed that strategy quickly. Nadal tried to run him next. It was equally unsuccessful. At one point, the world No. 1 resorted to hitting moonballs in an attempt to throw Djokovic off his rhythm. Nadal. Moonballs! Instead, it was Nadal who was on his heels. (Literally, in one case. Nadal tripped himself during a point in the second set and fell to the ground during a key deuce point.)

Since winning the Davis Cup in December, Djokovic has been playing nonstop. He won his next seven tournaments, including the Australian Open. The win Sunday over Nadal was his fourth straight over the world No. 1 and his fourth in a Masters 1000 events. And he did it all while looking as fresh as ever. You'd never have known that he had played a three-hour marathon the day before that ended long after midnight.

Right now, Djokovic is playing his sport at an unconscious level, like Michael Jordan in his prime or Tiger Woods at the turn of the century. The game looks easy when he takes the court, so much so that you find yourself wondering, "why can't everyone do this?" When Tiger would go on a birdie barrage and place every approach to six feet, it was like he had cracked the unbreakable code. There's a hint of that right now with Djokovic.

He's doing things that you're watching but aren't entirely sure how they're happening. Djokovic will change the flow of a point so quickly that you have to convince yourself he was ever scrambling to begin with. An example: Nadal would hit that wicked crosscourt forehand, sending Djokovic sprawling to the corner of the court. "He's on his heels," you'd think as the Serb barely got to the ball and pushed it over the net. By the time that thought registered, Djokovic was back in the ready position at the center of the court, receiving Nadal's forehand and then unloading one of his own that sent Nadal on the same scramble. Djokovic is turning defense into offense. He out-Nadaled Nadal.

It all sets up the most anticipated French Open in a generation. On one side, the greatest clay courter of all time, his dominance on the surface threatened for the first time ever. On the other side, the hottest tennis player of the moment, another Grand Slam, the No. 1 ranking and a new season-opening record within his grasp. There are 128 men in the field at the French but all eyes will be on two.

Rachael Leigh Cook Elisha Cuthbert Ciara Rachel Hunter Heidi Montag

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