New, improved Djokovic may be evolving into Nadal's toughest rival

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One can only imagine Roger Federer's reaction if he took the time to watch Novak Djokovic's 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 victory over Rafael Nadal in Sunday's Key Biscayne final. Federer had simply been dismissed by Nadal in the semifinals, blown off the court in a troublesome swirl of errant shots and negative body language. Now here was Nadal at the edge of exhaustion, actually bending over with hands on knees to catch his breath in the tiebreaker, and you wondered: Did Federer ever push Nadal to that point -- even at the height of their rivalry?

Federer faces the escalating write-off process now, claims that he's finished as a top player, and I find that an awkward discussion, requiring considerably more evidence. All we know for certain is that the new and improved Djokovic might be the best mover Nadal has ever faced at the elite level. And that is a stunning development for anyone familiar with Djokovic's history.

Trailing 5-1 in the first set, Djokovic wasn't just being beaten, he looked flustered and spent in the humid South Florida air. Severe heat always bothered him in the past, and it seemed plausible that (a) he would simply tank the remainder of that set and (b) eventually wither against the incessant pounding of Nadal's groundstrokes.

• GALLERY: 2011 ATP Champions

He did neither. I thought there was a turning point when Djokovic, in the process of holding serve for 5-2, caressed a backhand drop shot that was so perfect, Nadal didn't even move. Repeat: Nadal conceded a point. And the Serb came all the way back to 5-4 before Nadal served out the set.

That drop shot turned into quite a weapon for Djokovic, who repeatedly used it successfully against the quickest man in tennis. But it was Djokovic's defense that really told the story. Unlike Federer, whose one-handed backhand was so tellingly ineffective against Nadal's high-bouncing topspin forehands, Djokovic had definitive answers with two hands. His court coverage, as it has been all year, was simply phenomenal. And in the first game of the third set, he retrieved a shot that would have blown past virtually everyone else on tour.

I'd like to check with Bud Collins, but I'd surmise that no player in the history of tennis could match Nadal's sheer power on cross-court backhands from beyond the corner of the baseline. He loads that thing up and fires like a weapons expert unleashing a bazooka (with two hands, a technique never used until modern times). He picks his spots for the really big ones, invariably with spirit-crushing results, except that Djokovic made a lunging forehand save of that shot during the first game of the third set, and won the point. Amazing stuff.

If you trusted the televised images, you'd have sworn that Djokovic looked fatigued as Nadal held for 3-2 in the third. The Spaniard wasn't feeling so fresh, either, later saying, "Nothing left in the body right now. I was a little more tired than usual during this match. He seemed less tired than before when he has to run a lot."

Then we witnessed the turn of events that made this match so special: With both players leaking energy, the level of play improved. It became an instant classic, steaming magnificently into the tiebreaker on a hot, sultry afternoon before a Miami crowd rich in ethnicity, the shouts of encouragement arriving in many languages. It could have gone either way, truthfully; it's not as if Djokovic made some kind of grand, overriding statement in the rivalry, particularly with the clay-court season coming up. But everyone in tennis is witnessing Djokovic's evolution in fitness, resolve and performance. Whenever he and Nadal face off these days, you know it's the best matchup in tennis.


Nadal-Federer: Stunned and disappointed by Federer's uninspired play, the crowd began chanting "Rah-ger! Rah-ger!" with Nadal leading the semifinal 3-0 in the second set. The surge of noise became so omnipresent, Nadal backed off the baseline to allow a few extra moments before receiving serve. And on the very next point, Federer shanked a backhand, one of his 31 unforced errors in a match that lasted just an hour and 10 minutes. What a titanic letdown.

Have we seen the best of this rivalry? There seems to be no other conclusion, especially with Nadal (who leads 15-8) likely to gain ground if they meet at Monte Carlo, Roland Garros or the other European clay-court venues. Federer should be targeting Wimbledon for a message that will be clear to all. It might be his best opportunity of the year.

• GALLERY: The Nadal-Federer Rivalry

The Women's Final: Victoria Azarenka's conquest of Maria Sharapova was at times riveting, at other times sloppy and all-the-time annoying. This was Michelle Kaufman's very appropriate lead in Sunday's Miami Herald (Kaufman, long one of America's best tennis writers, is married to beloved humorist Dave Barry):

"The Blanche Ely High marching band entertained tennis fans before the Sony Ericsson Open women's final Saturday, and things normally would have quieted down considerably once the players took the court. But on this day, the finalists were Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova, two of the loudest, highest-pitched squealers in the sport. They drew giggles -- and full-blown laughter -- from the crowd of 12,445 with their dueling "Ay-eee!" yelps. If the stadium had a volume button, many of the fans would have turned it to mute."

Both players seem to think it's all perfectly fine, that they're at the vanguard of a trend we should all deeply respect. Wow, are they wrong. Viewers are bailing out like passengers on the Titanic. And when it comes to the people in the stands, here's a message to both of you caterwaulers: They are laughing at you. Got it? And they find it so strange when you warm up in silence.

Through it all, Azarenka had some interesting things to say about her temperament, once Zvonareva-like in its match-wrecking fury.

"I think I changed my mentality a little bit," she said. "I'm enjoying myself so much on the court that there's no room for frustration, even though I know some people are really pissed off about it. They want to see me very emotional -- they like it. But that's how I am right now. I guess it takes time and sometimes loneliness to realize what you have to do in your life."

Asked if she ever considered quitting the game, she answered, "For a second ... for a really slight second. Then my mom just kicked my ass for that."

The Invisible Match: It still seems inconceivable that Tennis Channel viewers weren't able to watch Kim Clijsters' 7-6, 3-6, 7-6 win over Ana Ivanovic in the quarterfinals. It was one of the most compelling matches in recent years, Clijsters coming back from 1-5 down and 0-40 in the final set, but due to a rain-created backlog, the match was moved to Court 2, which has no facilities for television.

That's correct: On its third most popular court -- comparable in scope to the storied Grandstand at the U.S. Open -- this prestigious tournament goes dark over the air waves. Announcer Ted Robinson called it "mind-boggling -- beyond my ability to comprehend," and the only visual was a hand-held video camera shooting Clijsters (only) during the final point.

Everyone loves Ivanovic for her charming demeanor (and, in many cases, other things), but she had to be kidding with her post-match rationalization.

"I managed to stay out there with her physically and to create opportunities and lots of match points (five) for myself. That's a very positive thing for me to take from here. It's a good thing."

No. It's a terrible thing, a complete physical and mental lapse under pressure. Ivanovic's loss represented the tour's biggest choke job since Jana Novotna blew a 5-0, 40-0 lead against Chanda Rubin at the 1995 French Open. There wasn't one good thing about it.

If you're looking for encouraging developments in defeat, turn to Andrea Petkovic, who won many admirers -- for her play and her demeanor -- before going down in a tough semifinal against Sharapova.

Did you catch the Petkovic interview in USA Today before the tournament began? Asked about the "fastest way to get to a million" viewers supporting her in the U.S., she answered, "Being Charlie Sheen?" Then she came back with, "I could buy 30 male models and sit them in my box every time I play a match."

And ...

"If they're naked, I get two million!"


NOTES: Unbelievably poor showing on the final version of ESPN's 90-minute "SportsCenter" Sunday night. How much coverage of the Djokovic-Nadal epic? Try none. With the hour and a half nearly spent, their names appeared on the left-side panel, indicating spots to come, but in reality, zero. Not a score, not a single point shown. Here's a network so terribly proud to be involved in all four majors, but it dismisses everything else as irrelevant. That won't work. ... Before the men's final, fans were treated to a Spanish guitarist who incorporated numerous tricks into his performance. To me, it's not a big match unless it's prefaced by a guy hurling his guitar into the air. ... With kids now being taught and playing tournaments on downsized courts, we all wondered how that would actually look. We found out during a CBS ad for during the men's final. What a revealing glimpse at a terrific idea. Perhaps enough to get parents ushering their kids into the sport. ... Djokovic's 24 straight wins leave him one short of Ivan Lendl's tour record for the start of a season, but you wonder if he can come close to matching the tour standard for a full year: John McEnroe's 82-3 in 1984, including 39 wins in a row. ... Serbian officials undoubtedly got a kick out of Petkovic signing up for Germany's Fed Cup matches against the U.S. in April. Petkovic has spent most of her life in Germany, but she was born in Tuzla, Bosnia, and enjoys hanging out with Ivanovic, Djokovic and other Serbian players. They are absolutely claiming her. ... It was mentioned on CBS that Djokovic's run began in December, when he led Serbia to a home-court Davis Cup victory over France. What a setup for Mary Carillo: "They just finished partying in Serbia last Tuesday."