By Kevin Ware
(March 30, 2014) KEY BISCAYNE – In a result that few expected, Novak Djokovic handily beat Rafael Nadal 6-3, 6-3 in the Sony Open men’s final for his fourth title in Miami (2007, 2011, 2012, 2014). This win is also his fourth Masters Series title win in a row (Shanghai, Paris, Indian Wells, Miami), and his second Indian Wells-Miami double.
More importantly, it was his third straight win over his Spanish rival before the start of the clay season, which could make for interesting drama in run up to the French Open.
Sunday’s match between Djokovic and Nadal was the 40th meeting in what has become the most prolific rivalry in ATP history. Many expected Sunday’s match to provide an encore to their epic 2011 final. But after fending off his only break point in his first service game of the match, Novak eventually settled into a ground game for which Nadal had few answers.
For Nadal, the key to winning this match was threefold: serve well, vary his ground game, and defend the Djokovic “down the line” backhand with aggressive hitting on his own backhand. There were early signs, however, that Nadal’s weaponry was misfiring.
He struggled to find the necessary depth on his crosscourt forehand, his backhand often sailed long, and Djokovic rarely allowed him to tee off on his preferred inside-out forehand. Conversely, once Djokovic found his range on his backhand and forehand shots, Nadal was on constant defense with little chance to assert his game on his Serbian opponent.
The crucial break in the first set came at 3-2 on the Nadal serve. Struggling to find his first serve, Nadal quickly sank to Love-30 with the help of a Djokovic touch volley winner and an untouchable crosscourt backhand winner. A timely unreturnable serve gave Nadal a glimmer of hope, but was quickly snuffed out by an amazing baseline-kissing Djokovic forehand followed by a Nadal backhand unforced error.
That one break was all that Djokovic needed to close out the first set in 39 minutes.
Nadal’s usually reliable serve let him down badly in the final. His first serve percentage of 59% wasn’t great, but his 47% second serve percentage was major a liability. Nadal’s lacking offensive game stemmed from an inability to defend second serves that were often 80-90 mph. Then again, it’s difficult to defend that speed at the top of the men’s game, even with perfect placement.
There was concern that perhaps a flair-up of his earlier back issues was affecting his serve speed. Nadal, always reluctant to talk about injury issues, gave a curt, “I am fine. Thank you very much” when asked about this in post-match press.
The second set continued as the first ended, with Nadal struggling on offense, and Djokovic confidently hitting every shot in his repertoire. There were moments when Nadal’s offensive game surfaced, only to be muted by one of his many unforced errors on the next point. Nadal fought as best he could, but couldn’t stop the inevitable as Djokovic ended the long championship point rally with a volley into open court.
Nadal ended the match with 15 winners against 20 unforced errors. Djokovic’s numbers were significantly better at 22 winners against 14 unforced errors. In matches that are determined by a handful of points, it’s hard to overcome this type of deficit.
For Nadal, however, the primary cause for Sunday’s final failures was the superior play of his opponent. Djokovic is one of the few players who can hurt Nadal when he’s playing his best tennis. He can hurt Nadal in many ways, and with few defensive options.
“So playing against him is the worst thing that can happen for me, because in general, talking about the first two shots, he has a better return than my one, he has a better serve than my one in this surface, especially.”
“Today Novak played at very high level in my opinion and was better than me.”
In sharp contrast to the relief displayed by Djokovic after his win over Roger Federer at Indian Wells, the newly-crowned Miami champion came into Sunday’s post-match news conference smiling, happy, and obviously looking forward to continuing his momentum as the tour moves to European clay. He credited the confidence from that Federer win for much his strong play in Miami.
“That was a great confidence boost for me that I carried on in this week, and this tournament has been perfect from the beginning to the end. The matches that I have played I played really well, and I elevated my game as the tournament progressed. The best performance of the tournament came in the right moment on Sunday against the biggest rival (Nadal).”
When asked if he was glad that Djokovic existed to offer him a challenge”, Nadal quickly (and jokingly) said, “No. I like challenges, but I am not stupid.”
In a telling reversal, Novak offered a very different viewpoint on the challenge of playing his rivals. “I think challenges, big challenges that I had in my career changed me in a positive way as a player. Because of Rafa and because of Roger I am what I am today…”
“Obviously it’s not easy when you’re playing a top rival at the finals of any tournament, but if you want to be the best, you have to beat the best, you know. You have to win against the best players in the world. That’s the biggest challenge you can have.”
Nadal’s loss in Sunday’s final continued a disappointing trend for Spaniards in Miami. No Spanish men have won the title in the tournament’s 30-year history, and are 0-7 in the Miami final. Nadal lost in four of those finals, and is joined by David Ferrer (2013), Carlos Moya (2003), and Sergi Brugera (1997).
Kevin Ware was in Key Biscayne covering the Sony Open for Tennis Panorama News. Follow his personal twitter @SFTennisFreak.