Prior to Sunday's final at the Monte Carlo Rolex Masters, Rafael Nadal had not lost a match at the event since 2003. He did not in 2004, and proceeded to win the event for the next 8 years. He had not lost the first set of a final until last Sunday, when he dropped the opener to a very impressive Novak Djokovic. The Serbian #1 went on to win the match 6-2, 7-6(1) to end Nadal's incredible 8-year streak as the king of of Monte Carlo.
I am a Federer fan, as anyone who has read this blog before knows. However, I find the Nadal vs Djokovic rivalry very intriguing. I don't enjoy watching either as much as I do Roger - not even close - but after witnessing the Nadal vs Federer rivalry play out the last 8 years, it is interesting for me to see a rivalry with the same kind of match-up dynamic that favours one player over the other.
Sure, Nadal officially leads the head-to-head 19 matches to 15. But in the past 11 (since the start of 2011, Djokovic leads 8 to 3 after his win in Monte Carlo. To put that into perspective, in Federer and Nadal's last 11 matches (dating back to Wimbledon 2008), Nadal leads 7 to 4. Since 2011, when Djokovic ultimately became a new reborn player, Djokovic is invariably the same kind of challenge to Nadal as Nadal is to Federer.
The amazing thing about Djokovic's 8-3 run against Nadal is that he has won three times on clay, and all in straight sets. He's won four on hard and once on grass in that stretch, and heading into all of the matches on clay and grass, Rafa was the favourite, even last Sunday in Monaco. Nadal has four of his last seven wins on hardcourt - Indian Wells 2013, Australian Open 2012, Miami 2011, and Australian Open 2009. So what those numbers mean is that Nadal is not only beating Federer on clay and Djokovic is not just winning his matches against Rafa on his preferred surface, hardcourt.
In Monte Carlo, when Nadal played his quarterfinal against Grigor Dimitrov, it was very noticeable that the Bulgarian wasn't struggling with Nadal's heavy topspin shots to his backhand like Federer struggles with them. One reason for that is because Dimitrov doesn't stand as close to the baseline as Federer, especially on clay, and he lets the ball drop down to his ideal contact height. The other is because Dimitrov has a very solid down the line backhand, like Gasquet and Wawrinka. Federer has a decent down the line backhand as well, but because he stands so close to the baseline it is much harder for him to change direction of the ball against Rafa heavy looping forehands.
Just as Nadal can render Federer's backhand a less effective shot with the exception of indoor hardcourt, Djokovic can make Nadal's forehand a less effective shot than it is against every other player. There are three main reasons why Djokovic is the worst match-up for the Spaniard right now. His return of serve, the ease and pace at which he can take the ball down the line on his backhand, and third, the incredible ability he has to take balls at shoulder height and the comfort he has playing those shots.
Djokovic has an incredible return. It is the best in the game today and perhaps ever. It is such a big weapon against Nadal (and every player, really) because he can consistently pound returns deep in the court, which immediately neutralizes his attack. On clay, Nadal loves to get his first serve in often and every time he does he will follow it up with a heavy topspin shot into one of the corners of the court. As soon as that happens, he is in control of the point. Against Djokovic, Nadal's ability to take control of the point is negated as soon as the return comes back at him, and right away Djokovic is on even footing or even taking the advantage in the point.
Federer has a very good and underrated return of serve, but in a different way than Djokovic. His favourite play is to chip or slice the ball short in the court to force his opponent to hit up on their next shot, which many times neutralizes the rally right away. Against Nadal, that play does not work because the Spaniard can get the ball up and down very quickly, even if he is hitting the ball from the service box. So he can negate what Federer is trying to negate, if you know what I mean.
The backhand down the line is a very effective shot against Nadal. The one pattern of play that works very well against him is to hit a hard shot to his backhand corner, and then hit a shot out wide to his forehand side, stretching him. From there, his opponent can go into the open court or back behind him, or just control the point in general. Whenever Federer has had success against Nadal, this is his best play. Indian Wells 2012 and the World Tour Finals 2011 are the best examples of him using that pattern of play to help win. Djokovic, with his amazing backhand down the line, can use this play very well but the advantage he has is that he can use it often because he is a master of changing the direction of the ball. Effectively, he could send every second ball to Rafa's backhand side if he wanted to and it would be a very safe shot for him no matter what position he is in. Advantage Djokovic.
(Sometimes Djokovic or Federer or anyone else will eliminate the down the line shot and just hammer a hard backhand to Nadal's forehand. However, Rafa is so quick to his forehand that getting him into his backhand corner first helps spread the court a little easier.)
The third point is probably the biggest difference between the way Djokovic can be effective against Nadal where Federer cannot - the shoulder height backhands. The 17-time Grand Slam champion can hit shoulder-high backhands, but a ball that high is outside his hitting zone and the real problem comes to the forefront when he is forced to hit high backhands hundreds of times throughout the course of a match. This is the biggest reason why Federer's biggest success against Nadal has come indoors, because the ball bounces lower and Roger can do plenty of damage off his backhand when he hits it knee-to hip height.
Djokovic is probably the greatest I have ever seen at taking shoulder-high balls off both forehand and backhand, but specifically backhand. Not all two-handers have the same comfort. His ability to counter Nadal's looping groundstrokes with a hard and deep high backhand neutralizes all the advantage Rafa has in playing that shot. Djokovic struggles far more with variety from the baseline than he does heavy topspin.
With Nadal's reign at Monte Carlo ending at the hands of the world #1, it sets up for an exciting clay court season. If Djokovic could now win Madrid or Rome, he would have loads of confidence going into Roland Garros, the title he wants most now. Remember, it was only an inspired and incredible Federer that stopped Djokovic from likely winning the Grand Slam in 2011. If the Serb runs into Nadal in Paris, it will make for a great battle, knowing that Novak has already beaten Rafa once on clay already. If he could win another match against Rafa in Madrid or Rome, the pressure would really be on the defending French Open champion to find a way past the strategic advantage Djokovic has over him.