WIMBLEDON, England -- It remains perhaps the most stunning visual of the tennis year: an exhausted Rafael Nadal taking a moment behind the baseline to bend over, grab his knees and catch his breath. This was in April, in the Key Biscayne final against Novak Djokovic, and no one could recall the great man looking so thoroughly spent.
As the two square off in Sunday's Wimbledon final, it's worth revisiting that third-set tiebreaker, eventually won by Djokovic in the defining moment of his career. He's had bigger wins -- notably the two titles at the Australian Open -- but none that so perfectly captured the essence of his 43-match winning streak, his newfound confidence and his escalated physical fitness.
As Nadal forged a 3-2 lead in that third set, Djokovic struck the appearance of a cranky, fatigued player. Somehow, he willed his way back into contention on a hot, sticky afternoon, refusing to wilt against the relentless pounding of Nadal's groundstrokes. The last few games produced tennis of the highest quality, and when it was over (4-6, 6-3, 7-6), Nadal didn't know quite what to think. "Nothing left in the body right now," he said. "I was a little more tired than usual during this match."
The clay-court season was soon to follow, but Nadal couldn't get Djokovic out of his mind. He couldn't shake him, either. Djokovic beat him in Rome, and then in Madrid, both in straight sets. Going back to the Indian Wells tournament in March, that gave Djokovic a four-match winning streak against Nadal within a two-month period, and you could only think to yourself: seriously? Is this really happening? If Nadal had any regrets at the French Open, it's that he would have preferred dispatching Djokovic, not Roger Federer, in that final.
So now comes the summit conference, the greatest final-day matchup of all-court movers that Wimbledon has ever seen. John McEnroe ran down his top five speed merchants on BBC television the other day, and after mentioning Nadal, Bjorn Borg, Johan Kriek (there's a name from the past) and Michael Chang ("for a while"), he included Djokovic, "and I'd put him right at the top."
The imagination fast-forwards to Sunday, a crucial point at hand: Nadal unleashes a wicked cross-court forehand, sending Djokovic way off the court. Somehow he retrieves it. Nadal flicks a little forehand drop shot down the line. Djokovic runs that one down, as well, and taps a lob that floats toward the baseline. Nadal scrambles to the scene and answers with a bullet forehand on a ball that, technically, has gone past him.
And so it would go, into eternity. There is no unreturnable shot in the minds of these two, no question that cannot be answered. We may not see the all-out, Becker-like dives that characterized the Djokovic-Jo-Wilfired Tsonga semifinal (the match of the tournament so far), but only because Nadal's speed is so otherworldly, he seldom needs to dive.
Nadal's four-set semifinal victory over Andy Murray was a comprehensive rout, no matter how much the British press made of a single shot. After winning the first set, Murray had a 2-1 lead when he botched a sitter forehand, costing him a shot at two break points. Granted, it was an awful shot that gave Nadal unexpected life. To me, though, the match turned moments later when Murray, needing to hold at 2-2, completely fell apart. That was the back-breaker, a horrendous two-point sequence (double-fault, blown overhead) that handed Nadal a break.
In any case, Murray put it best: "A three-hour match doesn't turn on one shot." The match turned because Nadal wore Murray down with a taskmaster's brutality. It turned because Nadal is by far the better player, especially on the Centre Court of Wimbledon. To me, nothing said it better than Saturday's headline in the Guardian: "Not a Choker, Not a Failure. Just Not as Good as Nadal."
The mystery continues, meanwhile, regarding Nadal's left foot. It seems odd that a pain-numbing injection would allow for such remarkable agility, but it certainly is working for Nadal. As Giles Smith wrote in the New York Times, "His liquid mobility throughout the match suggested that injections in the ankle region might be the way forward for all of us."
There is nothing about Djokovic's Wimbledon, truthfully, to suggest that he is vulnerable in any way. He has never much cared for the surface, and his spotty history against Nadal -- five Grand Slam encounters, five losses -- includes the semifinals of the 2007 Wimbledon. But Djokovic's past seems irrelevant in the wake of his dramatic changes in diet, conditioning and performance. He was an outright magician against Tsonga, and when that enthralling match was over, Djokovic bent down to kiss the hallowed grass.
"I have dreamed of playing the Wimbledon final since I started playing tennis, at four years old," said Djokovic. "I was always trying to visualize myself on Sunday, the last Sunday. I remember always Wimbledon being 'The One.'"
Djokovic became the world's No. 1-ranked player on Friday, meaning that for the first time since 2004 (Andy Roddick), someone other than Federer or Nadal owns that distinction. It's not the ranking he wants, though. It's Wimbledon, and it's Nadal. A win Sunday, and he will be the one.