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    Djokovic Rules

    I was visiting me sainted mother on Sunday, but through the Tennis Channel caught up with a replay of the men's final at the Mutua Madrid Open. Madrid is an ATP 1000 event sponsored by Mutua Madrileña, a large insurance company in Spain, and owned by the crafty Romanian player of the 1960s and 1970s era, Ion Tiriac (Bud Collins always referred to him as Count Dracula). Madrid is also one of the important red clay court tournaments leading up to Roland Garros, aka the French Open, which in recent years, with one exception, has been the personal stomping ground of Rafael Nadal.

    Clay is different than the hardcourts, and in the men's game there are many players that play well on hardcourt, like Andy Roddick, but are more vulnerable on clay. And there are many players that are far more dangerous on clay than hardcourts*. On red clay - which is largely crushed brick that the French call terre battu - the ball doesn't rebound as fast off the surface as on hardcourts. Players have a split second's more time to set up and hit a shot on clay. So a well-struck shot that would be a winner on a hardcourt, may well come back on clay - harder, faster and with more spin.

    Tennis officials use a court pace rating (CPR), based on the coefficient of restitution (bounce) and coefficient of friction (bite) of the court surface. As the chart above notes, CPRs up to 29 are considered slow, 30-34 is medium slow, 35-39 is medium, 40-44 is medium fast and over 45 is fast. Red clay might have a value of 23, and grass courts might be 46, but hardcourts vary from slow to medium-fast depending on the firmness of the substrate and the amount of sand in the thick acrylic painted on the surface.

    So while Novak Djokovic has torn up the early hardcourt season, going undefeated since the Australian Open, Rafa fans have been expecting that Nadal would reassert himself, and defend all his points, in the claycourt season. And Rafa has been superb. He won consecutive finals in the ATP 1000 Monte-Carlo and the ATP 500 Barcelona against a very strong David Ferrer. Ferrer played two wonderfully aggressive matches, only to see his countryman and friend Nadal track down shot after shot.

    In the meantime Djokovic won a smaller tournament, the ATP 250 Serbia Open, beating Feliciano Lopez, who is a fine clay court player, too. Djokovic has been striking the ball incredibly well this season, and was undefeated going into the Madrid final. But many clay court matches are characterized more by dogged persistence than brilliant shotmaking. Nadal can be as consistent as anyone, and can produce a beautiful shot from the worst court position.

    I caught a replay of the match late last night. Djokovic was already ahead 5-4 in the first set. Nadal served a long game, and saved three set points to hold to 5-5. Djokovic was hitting superb shots and Nadal kept getting them back. At one point, Nadal hit a short drop volley, Djokovic came in and lifted it over Nadal's head. It bounced close the the baseline. But Rafa ran back, hit the ball between his legs and lobbed it over Djokovic's head. That's the sort of exchange that often saps the will of the attacking player.

    But Djokovic maintained his patience, held serve and, with the benefit of two favorable net cords, broke Nadal to take the first set 7-5. As he should, Nadal quickly broke Djokovic to take control of the second set. And as he should, Djokovic quickly broke back to level the set at 1-1. They fought evenly until Nadal served at 4-5 to stay in the match. Djokovic continued to hit hard, angled shots to every corner of Nadal's court, and Rafa couldn't find enough of those magical shots to deny Djokovic the title, 7-5, 6-4. Djokovic extended his unbeaten streak to thirty-four and stopped Rafa's streak of claycourt wins at thirty-seven.

    Nadal may well play Djokovic again as he defends his title and points at Rome, the Internazionali BNL d'Italia - an ATP 1000 event. If Djokovic wins Rome, and Nadal fails to make the semifinals, Novak would earn the #1 ranking. I would pick Nadal to make the finals and keep his ranking, but the stage is certainly set for a well-contested Roland Garros. Can Djokovic maintain the level of shotmaking necessary to beat Nadal over three to five sets?

    Update:* By example, Gilles Simon just routined Roddick, 6-3, 6-3 at Rome.


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