If their recent semifinal matchup at the Monaco Masters is any indication, No. 1 Novak Djokovic just might have the early edge required to beat defending and nine-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal next month at Roland Garros. Djokovic's improvement on clay could also mean a matchup with Nadal in Paris might have the makings of a classic.
At the moment, Nadal is a 7/4 favorite to win the French, but Djokovic is just head of him at 11/10. The very prospect of Nadal not as the clear favorite at Roland Garros may have seemed unthinkable up until recent weeks. But Djokovic has been on a tear by doing a lot of the small things like finding better placement on his drop shots, and improving his defense and net game.
The matchup in Monaco may be a look ahead for Djokovic and Nadal. Showing none of the troubles on the clay surface that’s been the one detriment to his career thus far, the Serbian surged past the Spaniard in straight sets 6-3 6-3 in 98 minutes, winning 68 percent of his total service points and was especially strong with his first serve, claiming points 75 percent of the time.
It was also Djokovic’s fifth victory over No. 4 Nadal in their last six meetings, closing the gap on the latter’s 23-20 overall mark in the rivalry. Furthermore, Djokovic has now beaten Nadal, unquestionably the best clay player ever, in two of their last three matches on the surface.
Djokovic went on to beat No. 6 Tomas Berdych in the Monaco finals, and is now the first player to ever win the first three Masters events, including his victories at Indian Wells and Miami. Currently riding a 17-match win streak, he’s now 30-2 on the year with four singles titles to add to his mantle.
"I was just trying to stay with the right intensity and focus for each point because obviously you get tense when you're not feeling so comfortable on the court,” Djokovic told reporters after needing two hours and 43 minutes to topple Berdych.
“When you start missing, you kind of back up. I had to adjust my position and movement on the court several times. In the end I'm sitting here with this trophy that is very special to me. This is what matters. Sometimes winning ugly is necessary. It's been a remarkable start of the season for me. I couldn't ask for a better start of clay court season."
It’s truly an incredible start for Djokovic, but the bruised Nadal said he’s used to witnessing greatness from his rival before and after Roland Garros, where’s he’s won nine of the last 10 tournaments.
"Djokovic was good in 2011, in 2012, 2013 as well as in 2015. Sometimes you win more and some you win less," Nadal said to Sky Sports. "It is difficult to win everything all the time. Djokovic was as good then in 2011 as he is now. He had an impeccable year in 2011 as well as he is having in 2015.
"I have to congratulate him.”
Djokovic reportedly plans to take the next two weeks off, which could be enough time for Nadal to rediscover his dominant form on the clay courts of Barcelona, Madrid, and Rome.
It's been a tough 2015 for Nadal leading up to his favorite major. Nadal is only 18-6 on the year, notching one title in Buenos Aires, and he’s only reached one final in any tournament this season. But the 28-year-old experienced similar hiccups this time last year before losing only two sets in route to the French title.
In 2014, after he lost to Djokovic in straight sets on Miami’s hard court, Nadal fell to then-No. 6 David Ferrer in the Monaco quarterfinals, and then to Nicolas Almagro in the quarters in Barcelona. He then split his appearances in the Madrid and Rome finals, again losing to Djokovic before storming Roland Garros.
Nadal will have to shake off injuries, including the ankle sprain that limited his run in Miami earlier this year, and he might still be adjusting to the stem cell treatments issued to his back in November.
Still, Nadal conceded that right now Djokovic is the player to beat.
"The rest of the players have to accept that at the moment he is the world number one with all he has achieved this year," Nadal said. "This year I have to do things right, get back to a very high level to face him on the court.
"Tennis-wise, I feel a lot better than a few weeks ago. I am going to try to get as far as I can, and to play as well as I can, topping the level I showed in Monte Carlo."