In 2011, Djokovic turned the corner against Nadal and everyone else, celebrating a banner year, sweeping three of the four majors, clipping his estimable opponent six consecutive times on three different surfaces, including triumphs in the Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals. At the outset of the following year, Djokovic toppled Nadal in an epic five set, final round showdown at the Australian Open. That titanic battle lasted five hours and fifty three minutes. Djokovic had secured seven victories in a row over Nadal, cutting deeply into the Spaniard’s once overwhelming lead. At that stage, Nadal was narrowly ahead by 16 matches to 14.
It seemed entirely possible Djokovic would soon overtake Nadal, but that was not the case. Over the rest of 2012 and on through the next two seasons, Nadal struck back boldly, purposefully and unhesitatingly. He overcame Djokovic in the 2012 and 2014 French Open finals (as well as winning an epic Roland Garros semifinal in 2013), and prevailed when they clashed in the 2013 U.S. Open final. Nadal had distanced himself again from Djokovic, building a 22-15 lead. But once more, this time with growing confidence and unshakable gusto, without a trace of doubt or insecurity, Djokovic resumed his mastery.
He stood on level ground with Nadal at the end of 2015 after prevailing in all four of their skirmishes, and now Djokovic has moved past his formidable opponent for the first time ever in their series at 24-23. Djokovic comprehensively dismissed Nadal 6-1, 6-2 in the final of Saturday’s Qatar Open final in Doha. It was the most one-sided loss Nadal has ever suffered at the hands of the Serbian, not only in terms of the score but also the fullness of defeat, the utterly dominant nature of Djokovic’s play and the sense from early on that Djokovic had soared to a level he may never have reached before.
In fact, the scoreline is awfully misleading in this case. Nadal played some first rate tennis, searching for ways to sink his teeth into the encounter, slugging it out as forcefully as possible from the backcourt. He made his presence known as much as he could, standing up steadfastly on the baseline, ceding very little ground, hoping to somehow stifle Djokovic. But it was strikingly apparent that Nadal’s task was next to impossible. No one in the world could have contained Djokovic on this hard court occasion in Doha. His shotmaking was unassailable. He was majestic off both sides, driving the ball mightily into the distant corners, clipping the lines, ceaselessly setting the tempo, and keeping Nadal thoroughly at bay.
This was indisputably one of the signature performances of Djokovic’s career, a masterpiece across the board, a breathtaking display in every way. His returns were relentlessly deep. His serve was spot on. His court craft was ineffably good. As great as Djokovic was all through 2015, he surpassed that standard in this duel with Nadal.
Nadal’s lone opportunity was in the opening game of the match. Djokovic commenced the proceedings with an ace down the T and marched to 30-0, but Nadal took the next point with a winning volley before Djokovic double faulted. When Djokovic made a rare unforced error off the forehand, Nadal had arrived at break point for the first and last time in the match. Djokovic erased it systematically, driving a two-hander crosscourt close to the sideline, eliciting a short ball from the Spaniard, and then moving forward to send a forehand out of Nadal’s reach for a winner. After another deuce, Djokovic held on with another ace down the T.
He was off and running, and swiftly unstoppable. Djokovic broke at 15 for 2-0 after Nadal commenced that game by missing three straight first serves. Djokovic held at 15 for 3-0 by connecting with four out of five first serves, closing out that game with an ace followed by a service winner. Djokovic tried hard to gain an insurance break in the fourth game, taking a 26 stroke exchange with a sublime backhand crosscourt winner for 30-30. Nadal persisted, though, releasing an ace for 40-30 and then producing an impeccable first serve down the T that set up a routine forehand winner. Nadal thus held on for 1-3, but his reprieve was brief.
Djokovic held at 15 for 4-1, making three forehand winners in that stellar game. In the sixth game, Nadal was six for six on first serves and it amounted to nothing. Djokovic broke at 30 with four outright winners, two off the forehand, one with a smash, and the last a vintage backhand crosscourt. That burst of brilliance lifted the Serbian to 5-1. He promptly held at love for the set, making four first serves in a row, sealing the set 6-1 with an ace.
Nadal realized he was up against the world’s best player at the absolute peak of his powers. In the first game of the second set, he managed to rally from 15-40 to deuce, but Djokovic was an ineradicable force. The 28-year-old prevailed in a 20 stroke rally with a forehand half-volley drop shot winner to establish a third break point opportunity, which he sealed with some outstanding defense as Nadal narrowly overhit a forehand long. Djokovic surged to 2-0, holding at the cost of only one point. After Nadal held on in the third game, Djokovic went right back to work, holding at 15 for 3-1 with two more dazzling forehand winners and an overhead into the clear.
Nadal was fighting with all of his heart and his incomparable mind to stay alive in the contest, but it was futile. With the Spaniard serving at 1-3, 30-30, Djokovic laced a two-hander down the line for a winner. On break point, the Serbian approached the net confidently, and put away an overhead. Knowing he was up two breaks, Djokovic celebrated the near certainty of a triumph with an exultant fist pump. At 4-1, 40-15, he proudly displayed his self conviction with a serve-and-volley combination. Nadal tried to pass him down the line on the next shot but Djokovic was there for the forehand drop half-volley winner. He could do no wrong. It was 5-1 in his favor.
Nadal held on in the seventh game but Djokovic held at 15 to wrap it all up 6-1, 6-2. He had beaten the Spaniard for the fifth time in a row and the ninth time in their last ten meetings. He had commenced his 2016 campaign as stylishly as possible against a premier rival in the final round of his debut tournament. Both players made only 13 unforced errors, but Djokovic released 30 winners while Nadal had only 9. In eight service games, Djokovic conceded only ten points.
The primary patterns in this matchup work decidedly against Nadal. Djokovic is no longer troubled by the universally revered Nadal crosscourt forehand; he stands up to the Spaniard’s lethal brand of topspin and takes his backhand early, seizing the initiative in the process. His crosscourt forehand is largely too much for Nadal to handle on his two-hander. Nadal can’t gain the upper hand. Djokovic can win many more free points on his first serve than Nadal and his second serve is far superior. Nadal’s returns seldom carry the depth and pace of Djokovic’s. And so, across the board, in every facet of the game, Djokovic has the distinct advantage over Nadal.
To a large degree, Djokovic was primed for his final round appointment with Nadal because of the strong resistance he faced in his two previous matches. In the quarterfinals against Leonardo Mayer, Djokovic was down 0-2 in the first set before taking control, but he fell behind 5-3 in the second set. The Argentine served for that set at 5-4 but Djokovic threw up a couple of lob returns and an apprehensive Mayer faltered flagrantly. Djokovic broke back and finished off the victory 6-3, 7-5. In the semifinals, he accounted for Tomas Berdych 6-3, 7-6 (3), defeating the 30-year-old for the 22nd time in 24 career collisions.
Djokovic was serving precariously at 1-3, 15-40 in the first set but he captured five games in a row to move out in front. The second set was on serve all the way before Djokovic played a nearly immaculate tie-break. Berdych was with him toe to toe from the baseline through much of the match but, when it mattered the most, with the stakes high, Djokovic was not found wanting. Being pushed hard by Mayer and Berdych was just what Djokovic needed to get him back in the tournament groove after the off season.
He has now secured 60 singles titles across his sterling career. That puts Djokovic in a tie for ninth place on the Open Era list. Jimmy Connors won 109 titles and he stands in first place, far ahead of the field. Ivan Lendl took 94 titles for second place, followed by Roger Federer in third place with 88 titles. John McEnroe won 77 events and is in fourth place. Nadal is No. 5 with 67 titles. Pete Sampras and Bjorn Borg are tied for sixth; both men secured 64 tournament victories. Guillermo Vilas is in 8th place, having won 62 titles. Andre Agassi is tied with Djokovic at No. 9.
Surely, Djokovic will pass Sampras and Borg later this year. He will go full force after title No. 61 at the upcoming Australian Open, striving for his sixth crown on the hard courts in Melbourne. Nadal, or course, will be no less determined to succeed than Djokovic in that storied setting. The 29-year-old left-hander has been a player of growing stability over the last four months, and he should be back at No. 2 in the world by summer, but the feeling grows that Djokovic is fundamentally better than Nadal these days. When all is said and done, it seems certain that Djokovic will finish his career with a clear winning record against Nadal, and that is no mean feat considering how much ground he had to cover just to catch up with his magnificent rival.