Last year, 2010, it was the year of Nadal. Rafael Nadal won three grand slam titles and his fifth in Paris. He didn´t drop a set the whole way, the second time he´s done so. He also completed his ´clay slam´winning all the clay Masters (Monte Carlo, Rome and Madrid) in the same year. Novak Djokovic? He didn´t get past the quarter finals. The 23 year old hasn´t been to the Semi Final since 2008, his best finish at the Roland Garros.
Its not only the reversal of roles and momentum in which these players enter the Roland Garros. It is the first time in ages that we´re entering a Grand Slam tournament in which the most anticipated match isn´t Nadal-Federer but Djokovic vs Nadal. This is the first time Djokovic is going into a grand slam tournament as a favorite.
Say what? Yes, the favorite. I know he has only won slams in Australia. I know that his 37-0 start to 2011 has to end somewhere. We all know Nadal is the King of Clay, king of Paris, probably the greatest clay player of all time. It doesn´t matter. Sports, Tennis, it´s a flexible thing. Don´t let the past fool you. That´s what´s keeping the expectations and false hopes of fans from Roger Federer at an undeserved level. I´m not saying Nadal is on the decline, but there´s something off this year. I thought it was only a physical thing, but with every loss to Djokovic in a Masters final, no matter what Rafael Nadal says, it´s mental. It´s mostly mental.
Nadal has been talking about the chances he had in the Rome final, about how hard it is to keep a streak going like the one Djokovic has built up since the beginning of this year. I sensed frustration, a bit of despair in Nadal´s performance against Djokovic at Rome, his fourth win over the World´s number one player this year. Nadal couldn´t get a dominant stretch going. He couldn´t penetrate Djokovic´s defense, something Nadal has commented on as the only thing that is techincally different with Djokovic´s game. The rest of it? All confidence.
Novak Djokovic is oozing with confidence, and in Tennis, a checked head and playing confidently are the two most important factors. Novak can do no wrong right now – every decision he makes – going inside, staying on the line, it´s all right. Every shot he makes hits the corner. He kept pushing and pressuring Nadal. He turns defense into offense with ease, backhand and forehand. There´s no rattling him right now.
Do I think Novak Djokovic is a better player than Nadal? Well, yeah. Maybe not on Clay, not in a convincing way. He´s got the mental edge right now over Rafa. The key for Nadal, who seems to be handling the rest of the Tennis world mortals with relative ease, will be to learn from the others. Watching what off-sets Djokovic during his run to the final.
On a final note, I wouldn´t be surprised if Roger Federer loses in the first round. Getting Feliciano Lopez as his first opponent is probably the toughest draw he could get. I´d love to see another Federer-Djokovic match in the Semi Final, but I´m putting my money on Federer not making it.