The King of Hard Courts is back.
No. 2 Novak Djokovic put together a clinic on Sunday, rolling past No. 1 Rafael Nadal 6-3, 6-3 to win his fourth Sony Open title. Djokovic joins Roger Federer as the only men to win Indian Wells and Miami in the same season twice; the Serb also accomplished the feat during his incredible 2011 season. Nadal, who fell to 0-4 in Sony Open finals, has lost three consecutive matches to Djokovic since beating him at the U.S. Open last fall.
''I tried everything," Nadal said. "I tried my best. It was not enough. The opponent was just better than me, and when the opponent is better, he's better.''
Nadal's only chance to gain the advantage came just five points into the match, when he earned his only break point in Djokovic's first service game. The Serb saved it and held, and then he flat-out ran away with the match. It was a tactically perfect match from Djokovic, who won Indian Wells and Miami without coach Boris Becker in his box, rejoined instead by his longtime coach, Marian Vajda.
Djokovic's return was clicking and he consistently won the rallies directing his backhand to Nadal's forehand. The world No. 2 finished with 22 winners to 14 unforced errors, while Nadal had 15 winners and 20 unforced errors. For just the 14th time in his career, Nadal failed to win more than 40 percent of the total points (40 of 101). That's what you call a blowout.
"I played a great match," Djokovic said. "From the start to the end, everything was working really well."
Djokovic improved to 35-0 in finals after winning the first set. The winner of the first set has won the last 10 meetings of this rivalry, which has spanned 40 matches. Nadal still leads the head-to-head 22-18, but Djokovic is 14-7 on hard courts.
Djokovic's great run of form over the last month, during which he's beaten Federer to win Indian Wells and Andy Murray and Nadal in Miami, opens up a number of questions as the tour shifts to the clay season. The Serb has made it known that he's gunning for the French Open title to complete the career Grand Slam.
“If I play this way, I think I have a very good chance against him on clay as well," Djokovic told ESPN.
The two could meet again in three weeks at the Monte Carlo Masters.
Game-by-game analysis below.
4:17 p.m. ET | Novak Djokovic defeats Rafael Nadal 6-3, 6-3 to win his fourth Sony Open title.
Djokovic holds his serve at love and breaks Nadal at 15 to close the match. An entertaining, cat-and-mouse match point ends with both players at the net and Djokovic putting the ball into the open court.
A 28-shot rally on match point? Fun one:
So Djokovic lands in North American title-less for the first time since 2006 and leaves by completing the Indian Wells/Miami double for the second time in his career, once again proving that when it comes to hard courts, he's the boss.
As for Nadal, he'll keep chasing this Miami title. He's now made the final four times and lost.
Quite simply, this was a beatdown. The Spaniard never imposed himself, and that's partially his fault, but all credit to Djokovic here. The Serb never let Nadal get his rhythm, taking control of the points early and building the points with smart, precise hitting. Djokovic won 60 points compared to Nadal's 41, a near-60-40 split. That's the statistical definition of a tennis woodshedding.
The final stats don't tell the full story, but Djokovic had one heck of a returning day. Didn't miss much.
The number-crunching folks at Tennis Abstract answer a question that percolated as the one-way match developed. This is just the 14th time in 811 matches that Nadal didn't win more than 40 percent of the points. This is also the first time it's happened since the 2011 ATP World Tour Finals, when he lost to Federer 6-3, 6-0, and the third time it's happened against Djokovic.
3:59 p.m. ET | Djokovic holds, leads *4-3.
Djokovic holds at 15. Takes it with a clean and flat backhand cross-court winner. He's leaning into that shot beautifully today and Nadal is still leaving the ball short on his forehand. Constantly late on that shot. Could the walkover really have affected his timing that much?
Nadal holds, but Djokovic has this demoralizing habit of playing at least one point in Nadal's service games to remind him that everything is clicking for him today. This time he hits a fantastic forehand winner up the line and then walks to play the next point like it's no big deal.
3:50 p.m. ET | Djokovic holds, leads *3-2.
Djokovic is making Nadal look very average. Nadal is also making Nadal look very average today. This has been a great performance for Djokovic, but it hasn't been a contest at all. Not a whole lot of dramatic tension at this point. Djokovic is having a good day and Nadal is having a bad one. Hey, when you play a guy 40 times, there are going to be a few stinkers.
Down break point, Nadal whips a fantastic forehand winner, and we get our first big "Vamos" yell of the day. He holds, but that level of aggression needs to be consistent as opposed to just popping up when he's behind in the score.
3:39 p.m. ET | Djokovic breaks, leads *2-1.
Second verse, same as the first. More tentative hitting from Nadal, while Djokovic looks like he's just out for a light afternoon hit. He breaks Nadal right out of the gate, and the whole match can be summed up with their protracted rally on break point. Djokovic is standing in the center of the court dictating, Nadal is hitting the ball back, and Djokovic slowly opens up the court until he can crack a winner.
Nadal gets a look at 30-all and deuce on Djokovic's serve, but the Serb isn't flustered. He holds. He's playing some calm tennis and thinking very clearly. Every shot is working for him. Well, except for his overhead. Still flubbing that one.
Important hold for Nadal to get on the board. He shows short bursts of aggressive play, but Djokovic just keeps snuffing out every challenge.
Meanwhile, this creepy thing happened:
3:22 p.m. ET | Djokovic wins the first set 6-3.
Nadal falls behind 15-30 on his serve, which seems to be a wake-up call. He's been too tentative, particularly on his forehand, and he finally unleashes some heavy ones to get the hold. He needs to do more of that in the second set or Djokovic will just keep bullying him around the court.
Djokovic coolly serves out the set at 15. That was a clean, clinical and authoritative takedown of Nadal. Djokovic isn't playing out of his mind at all. This is standard-level from Djokovic and he's making Nadal look second-best. Rafa can't find the length on his shots, he's playing far too deep behind the court and he's just not looking to hit the big first ball to take control of the point. This is just hitting practice for the world No. 2.
3:13 p.m. ET | Djokovic breaks and holds, leads *5-2.
Djokovic hits a beautiful backhand cross-court winner to earn 0-30. Nadal responds by getting his first first serve of the game in, and Djokovic sprays the forehand return wide. But once again, Nadal sends in a second serve and Djokovic controls the point with some heavy and deep hitting to get Rafa on the run. How deep was that hitting?
Novak Djokovic clipping lines early. (Screengrab from TennisTV)
Thanks to that forehand winner, Djokovic has two break points at 15-40. Nadal has to give him another second serve and, like clockwork, Djokovic controls the point. He puts a lot of shape and heavy spin on his forehand to pull Nadal wide to his backhand and Nadal sends the reply long. There's the break for the Serb.
Nadal responds by hitting the first Hot Shot of the match in the first point of the next game. The odds are always in your favor if you can get Djokovic to hit an overhead smash and, sure enough, Nadal makes him pay:
But that's the only point he wins in the game. Djokovic consolidates. He's volleying incredibly well today.
3:04 p.m. ET | Djokovic holds, leads 3-2*.
No-drama holds for both players. Nadal gets to 30-all again on Djokovic's serve, but the Serb reels off the next two points. Still just one break point in this match, for Nadal in the first game.
Djokovic is feeling the heat: He asks for an ice towel during the changeover, and isn't too pleased to hear that there are none available. Guess we know what the trainers will be doing during the next two games.
2:54 p.m. ET | Djokovic holds, leads 2-1*.
The first set is important in any best-of-three match, but it's even more so when these two lock horns. Djokovic has never lost a final after winning the first set (34-0), and the winner of the last nine meetings in this rivalry has taken the first set.
First game, first break point for Nadal. At 30-all on Djokovic's serve, the two play a long rally that Nadal finally breaks up with a big inside-out forehand, earning a short ball that he pounds for a winner. Djokovic calmly saves it break point, though. He gets a tricky mid-court ball that spins wide of the tramline, but he calmly hits a sharp-angle backhand and follows it up with a measured backhand into the open court, where Nadal puts a defensive slice into the net. Djokovic wins the next two points from deuce and holds.
Nadal responds with a hold at love. And Djokovic settles down with a love hold, too.
Interesting graphic here from TennisTV showing Nadal's serving pattern in his three-set win over Djokovic last year in Montreal. Nadal served almost exclusively to Djokovic's forehand in the ad court and his backhand in the deuce court.
The tactic makes sense. He doesn't have the biggest serve and you don't want to give Djokovic any angle to work with. Otherwise, this might happen (see 50-second mark):
It's a distinct tactical adjustment against Djokovic. Coming into the final, Nadal guided 78 percent of his serves wide to the ad court. Gotta respect the Djokovic return game.
A view of the Stadium in Key Biscayne. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
2:42 p.m. ET | Warm up
It's a perfect day for tennis in Miami. The sun is shining and the breeze is described as "slight." A huge roar for Nadal as he walks out on court. Despite the fact he's never won Miami, he has the home-court support from the fans.
What can be said about this rivalry -- this 40th meeting goes by RafoleXL -- that hasn't already been said? After today, Djokovic and Nadal will be the reigning champions of all nine ATP Masters 1000, the first time two men have ever exerted such dominance (Roger Federer and Nadal got as close to eight during their two-man reign). In addition, they hold two of the four Slams and contested last fall's ATP World Tour Finals, which Djokovic won. So is it time to check "The Big Four" label at the door? Right now, it's all about The Big Two.
Here's ESPN's pre-match promo:
Brad Gilbert is running through his completely unintelligible Tale of the Tape on ESPN. Come on, BG. Go out on a limb and just give one check mark in each column. Live a little.
With the semifinal walkovers, Djokovic has had three days of rest and Nadal has had two. Darren Cahill says the days off give this a Slam-final feel. I think it actually feels a bit like a one-match exhibition, which I don't mean as an insult. I would pay good money just to watch Djokovic and Nadal play a one-off match as long as I was assured they were taking it seriously.
Djokovic will serve first.
No. 1 Rafael Nadal will meet No. 2 Novak Djokovic in the final of the Sony Open. ESPN will televise the match, which is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. ET on Sunday.
Nadal is seeking his first title in 10 appearances in Miami. He rallied past Milos Raonic 4-6, 6-2, 6-4 in the quarterfinals and received a walkover into the final when Tomas Berdych withdrew because of gastroenteritis.
Djokovic also received a walkover into the final after Kei Nishikori pulled out with a groin injury. The Serb didn't have to play a point in the third round, either, because of Florian Mayer's withdrawal. Otherwise, Djokovic has three straight-set victories, including a 7-5, 6-3 win over Andy Murray in the quarterfinals. Djokovic, who is coming off a title at the BNP Paribas Open, has won the Sony Open three times.
NGUYEN: Double walkovers in Sony Open semifinals a first for ATP
This will be the 40th meeting between Nadal and Djokovic, an Open era record. Nadal leads 22-17, but Djokovic is 13-7 on hard courts and has won the last two matches on the surface in straight sets.
Regardless of the result, Nadal will remain No. 1 and Djokovic will stay No. 2 in Monday's rankings. After Sunday, Djokovic and Nadal will hold all nine Masters 1000 titles between them, along with the ATP World Tour Finals.