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Djokovic lends intrigue to French Open hunt with victory over Nadal

A single piece of evidence can be a fluke, and even a second misfire can be misleading. But Rafael Nadal has now lost three straight matches to Novak Djokovic -- twice on hardcourts, once on clay -- and there was something about Sunday's Madrid final that spoke to absolute command.

Simply put, Djokovic now owns this rivalry in terms of court coverage, shot arsenal, endurance and, dare we say, belief. Nobody is more driven by brazen confidence than Nadal, but Djokovic has become his equal in that regard. That makes him the first player ever to attain such status on clay.

Djokovic was in such command during this 7-5, 6-4 win, so persistent in maintaining the edge he had gained at Indian Wells and Miami, it didn't seem to matter that he'd never beaten Nadal (0-9 entering Sunday) on clay. Everything is about this year, right now. Just as we can't refer to Roger Federer's past as a relevant factor in contemporary discourse, Djokovic has put every weakness behind him in fashioning a 34-match winning streak.

I was laughing out loud before the first point of the Tennis Channel telecast, for I can never get over the endearing absurdity of Nadal's pre-match routine. Once the meeting at the net is complete, Nadal leaps out of a crouch and launches an all-out sprint. It strikes the look of a man in desperate pursuit of a pickpocket, but Nadal's destination is merely the baseline. It's a three-step sprint and he's there.

Djokovic is a master of imitating this particular curiosity -- he has all of Nadal's mannerisms down -- but I doubt if he was chuckling on the other side of the net. He was about to play Nadal on a Spanish court before a crowd rich in celebrity (interesting to see Cristiano Ronaldo on hand) and somewhat heavy-hearted in the wake of Seve Ballesteros' death. This was to be an awakening, a reassurance of Nadal's greatness on home soil, and there were several moments in which the fist-pumping Nadal seemed to have turned the momentum his way.

Djokovic never let that happen -- not even after Nadal crafted what might have been the Shot of the Year.

Very few players have been able to master the between-the-legs shot in a frantic retreat to the baseline. Some manage a feeble return, and a select few (including Federer) can actually unleash a bullet. But a lob? How is that even possible? Nadal managed to do that, in the first game of the second set, flicking a little rainbow that landed just inches inside the baseline.

The look on Djokovic's face was one of amazement, as in, "Can't recall seeing that before," and he could only tap his racket in appreciation. But there would be no emotional swings this day, no radical shifts of fortune. Djokovic prevailed on the lengthy, back-and-forth exchanges that have always defined Nadal's brilliance on clay. Nadal pounded away at Djokovic's backhand -- a tactic that has always worked well against Federer's one-handed shot -- but the Serb was merciless and unerring, ending several key points with wicked cross-court winners.

There were times, as well, when Nadal let himself down. At 2-2 and 30-all in the second set, he grabbed his head in disbelief after chipping a backhand long. He sailed another one too deep on the next point, and even his most ardent supporters sensed the end may be near.

Things will be different in Paris, where a possible Nadal-Djokovic meeting will be the most anticipated match of the French Open. That's a slower clay court than Madrid's, and it's best of five sets, and we'll see how Djokovic responds if he has to grind his way through this week's Rome event. Right now, he is a man without weakness, his 2011 record unblemished. What a marvel to behold.

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Although Federer took a 5-7, 6-1, 6-3 loss to Nadal in their semifinal, there were many signs of life from the deposed king. He was crushing the forehand, rushing the net, caressing feathery drop shots, and generally playing the kind of all-out, uninhibited tennis that his coach, Paul Annacone, has been seeking. Watching Federer's best moments, with that familiar style and flourish, it was easy to look ahead to Wimbledon for perhaps his definitive statement of the year.

It was unsettling, though, to watch Federer lose his composure. On four different occasions, he took the time to insult the linesmen through biting comments toward veteran chair umpire Mohamed Lahyani, making such sarcastic remarks as, "You think he's right; you know he hasn't got a clue." There are times when a player has to stand up for himself, but this was Andy Roddick-like: petulant to the point of tedium. Federer was challenging line calls that proved to be correct (by Hawk-Eye, available through television but not used in the match), and as such, he was merely wasting everyone's time. When Lahyani finally told him, "Roger, it's enough," he was absolutely right.

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For Tennis Channel viewers, the weekday portion of the tournament was a complete disaster on the women's side. Not a single match was shown, depriving fans of watching Maria Sharapova's loss to Dominika Cibulkova, Bethanie Mattek-Sands' upset of Francesca Schiavone, and Julia Goerges' second straight win over top-ranked Caroline Wozniacki.

The lopsided coverage was so comically wrong, there had to be a reason -- and there was. As opposed to Indian Wells or Miami, where Tennis Channel is in complete charge of the coverage, the network depends on international feeds at Madrid and a number of other foreign-based events. The WTA offered no women's feed until the quarterfinals, thus the unfortunate blackouts.

"The good news," said Tennis Channel spokesman Eric Abner, "is that we have the rights to the women's matches once they do start to offer more of them on their feed, and we look forward to showing them alongside the men in tournaments where both tours are competing."

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It seems that Tennis.com went a bit overboard last week in a story hinting at friction between Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, to the point (according to the story) where they were avoiding all personal contact and refusing to play each other in future exhibitions. Pete Bodo (also of Tennis.com) reached both players by telephone, and each was appalled at the negative publicity.

Sampras: "When I read this report about a problem between me and Andre, I was like, 'What?' Where did that come from? The facts were all wrong. Andre and I are fine. And we'll be playing quite a lot together this year."

Agassi: "All that stuff, it's over. It's been over. Trust me on that."

The new, revamped Champions Series is a 12-city, five-week tour of one-night stands, always featuring four of the seven players who have signed up: Agassi, Sampras, John McEnroe, Jim Courier, Bjorn Borg, Michael Chang and Mats Wilander. The season begins September 22 in Fort Lauderdale and continues on to Washington, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Boston, Phoenix, Seattle, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Chicago, St. Louis and Buffalo.

Sampras told the New York Times' Chris Clarey that he was deeply impressed by the crowd and energy inside Madison Square Garden when the two players met in February, saying, "You kind of live your life with your wife and your kids, and you sort of forget who you were a little bit." And there was this priceless barb from Agassi: "I thought this was going to be a real family entertainment tour, and then they told me John was participating, so I realized maybe it's not."

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NOTES: Fans have learned to be highly suspicious of any comment from Venus and Serena Williams regarding their future plans, but it's different when their mother, Oracene, speaks up. She said recently there's "no hope" of either sister playing the French Open, and the injured Kim Clijsters has ruled herself out, as well ... It wasn't easy, but clay-tormented Andy Roddick managed to lose in Rome -- in the first round, to Gilles Simon -- before Djokovic and Nadal even got there ... Quite a break for Wozniacki: Goerges and Cibulkova, both of whom were slated to be in her quarter of the draw, withdrew from Rome with injuries (assumed to be minor) ... So it comes to this for Donald Young: He goes against Wayne Odesnik, that noted and roundly despised cheater, in the final of the Savannah Challenger and can't close the deal ... Is women's tennis that unpopular in Madrid? The crowd was inexcusably small for the Petra Kvitova-Victoria Azarenka final ... That was a tremendous win for Kvitova and her massive forehand, and it's interesting to note that she's the only left-hander among the women's Top 30. One of those things you can't explain: The history of men's tennis is rich in left-handed glory -- Rod Laver, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and Guillermo Vilas, to name a few -- but among women's Grand Slam champions in the Open Era, only Martina Navratilova and Ann Haydon-Jones were lefties ... Fernando Verdasco was one cranky loser after he was crushed by big-serving Milos Raonic in San Jose, saying the match "wasn't really tennis" and vowing to avenge the defeat on clay. He did just that, 6-4, 6-4, in the first round of Rome ... Let me join the many critics raving about two great tennis books: Matt Cronin's Epic: John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg and the Greatest Tennis Season Ever and Steve Tignor's High Strung: Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and the Untold Story of Tennis' Fiercest Rivalry. Superb work by a couple of journalists who write beautifully about the sport all year long.

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