Djokovic set to dethrone Nadal King of Clay?
Novak Djokovic's impressive victory over Rafael Nadal in Rome showed that he might have what it takes to dethrone the King of Clay. Not simply because he got the better of him in a single battle but because of the way in which he did it.
Nadal's record on clay speaks for itself. No one has ever been as dominant on any surface as Rafa has been on clay. But this clay court season has been poor by his standards.
I'm aware that talking about a player having a bad run when he won one of three Masters 1000 events and was a finalist and quarter-finalist in the other two is quite absurd, but such is the level we've come to expect from Rafa.
Clearly Nadal has not been at his sublime best of late. But I'm less interested in the fact that he's actually shown himself to be human and more intrigued by the prospect that Djokovic may have developed a winning formula for beating him on clay. Is this a blip on the radar or a sign of things to come?
Djokovic did three things very well that he will want to replicate in future encounters with Nadal. Firstly, Djokovic kept the points short which suits his more aggressive style. Nearly half of all the points in the match were less than five shots and of those Novak won twice as many as Rafa.
Secondly, he attacked Nadal's second serve. Nadal usually gets away with 'rolling' his second serve in on clay as his opponents are rarely brave enough to attack a rising ball on the slow surface - it's a case of the risk being greater than the reward. But Djokovic caught Nadal off guard by hitting hard, flat forehand returns to Nadal's forehand side which he typically leaves exposed since he is accustomed to returns being directed to his backhand side - few are brave enough to attack to Rafa's forehand side!
Thirdly, Djokovic crucially did not allow Nadal to get comfortable in his usual position deep behind the baseline where it's virtually impossible to hit the ball past him and he can pick-off passing shots with ease. Djokovic hit nine drop shots that yanked Nadal forwards which successfully kept him off balance and guessing.
So Nadal has some thinking to do. But rest assured, when the players hit the hallowed dirt at Roland Garros next week there will be only one favourite for the title. For only one man has claimed eight titles in nine appearances. Only one man has battled there 10 times against the mights of Federer and Djokovic and prevailed on every single occasion.
TIP OF THE WEEK - Change your tactics, change the story
When two players have played each other over and over, like Nadal and Djokovic have, it can be easy to slip into playing certain roles, particularly if the story has been virtually the same on every previous occasion. If you're the winner in this story then don't change a thing, but if you're the perpetual loser then you may want to change the story!
We're creatures of habit that derive comfort in familiarity, even if it results in a bitter ending. If a player's tactic against Nadal on clay was 'stay back and play my best' we all know how that story is going to end.
If you want to have a shot at beating your nemesis throw out the script and try something different. If they like the ball deep try dropping it short. If they like the ball coming into their strike zone with pace try slowing things down by giving your balls a little more air.
Try something different, anything and assess the effectiveness later on. At the very least you're going to make your opponent uncomfortable as they try to find another way to prevail. See you on the court!