NEW YORK -- The duopoly that became a trivalry has been reduced to a soloist. For years, Novak Djokovic struggled to invade the airspace of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, the talented tennis clown who often shrank when the time came to take the sport's giants down. Call it gravitas or cojones, but Djokovic lacked it when it counted.
But as the 2011 tennis season rumbles to the finish line, Djokovic has transformed himself into the most dominant athlete in the sport and a man with no rivals. He is a preposterous 64-2 this year, including three majors, and at 8:24 p.m. on Sept. 12, 2011, Djokovic solidified arguably the greatest single-season (think of his competition in this era) in the history of men's tennis. His 6-2, 6-4, 6-7 (3), 6-1 win over Nadal in the U.S. Open men's final was his (so far) career-defining masterpiece. CBS analyst John McEnroe called the 4-hour and 10-minute match as physical a battle he had ever seen on the court. And Nadal, the sport's exemplar for physical play, had never looked so punished on the court. "I don't know if he's bringing tennis to another level, but for sure this season he's doing fantastic," Nadal said. "His level is really, really high."
This was the first time Djokovic played at a Grand Slam as the world's top player, a crown he swiped from Nadal after reaching the Wimbledon final. It was also the first time someone other than Nadal or Federer had been ranked No. 1 in the world since Feb. 2004. Last year Nadal had finally passed Federer to become the sport's assured No. 1, only to get passed this year by another comet. Djokovic is now on a six-match winning streak against Nadal, including this year's Wimbledon final (grass) and finals in Rome (clay), Madrid (clay), Miami (hardcourt), Indian Wells (hardcourt) and the U.S. Open (hardcourt). He has taken 14 of the last 18 sets from Nadal and is decamped deep in his head.
"I'm hitting the shots that I maybe wasn't hitting in last two, three years now," said Djokovic, one of only five men in the Open Era (along with Federer and Nadal) to win three majors in a single season. "I'm going for it, I'm more aggressive, and I have just a different approach to the semifinals and finals of major events, especially when I'm playing two great champions, Rafa and Roger. In last couple of years that wasn't the case. I was always kind of trying to wait for their mistakes or being out there and playing my best tennis and not really having the positive attitude and kind of believing that I can win. So this has changed, I guess."
Stylistically, something about Djokovic bothers Federer. You could see and hear in that in his comments after the semifinals. But it's harder to read the dynamic between Nadal and Djokovic. There is respect between the two players but the camps are as different as Barcelona and Belgrade. Never in a million years would Nadal dance on the court as Djokovic did following his win over Federer. Nor would Nadal's parents wear T-shirts adorned with Nadal's image as Srdian Djokovic did last year while sitting in his son's player's box. There does not seem to be major animus here, so the rivalry's future is more likely to be forged on the court.
What does Nadal have to do to change his fortunes? "Nadal is used to being very, very consistent, and now he has to get relentless, which is different," said CBS analyst Mary Carillo. "He has to get out of his comfort zone, which he enjoys because so many people have a tough time against his leftiness and the weight of shot. But Djokovic is not afraid to go to Rafa's forehand to get to his backhand. Rafa is going to have to find a way to make Djokovic defend the entire court. He can't be risk averse going after Djokovic now. He's going to have to go bigger and be OK with that."
In the news conference afterward, Nadal was not forlorn. Yes, he was resigned that on this day and this year, Djokovic was the better player. But he was pleased that he had come away from a lousy summer with improved play at the Open. "You know what? I go back home knowing that I am on the way," Nadal said. "You know, I like to fight, I want to enjoy about this battle against him ... I have an easy goal for me now. It's going to be tough to change the situation, but the goal is easy to see. His level for sure is fantastic. He's doing very well mentally, everything. So just accept that. Accept the challenge, and work."
Nadal and Djokovic have played each other 29 times -- amazing given they are 25 and 24 years of age, respectively -- dating back to the 2006 French Open quarterfinals. The Open was the 11th time they've met in a final and most tennis observers view their semifinal match in Madrid on clay two years ago as the best match of the rivalry. In a grueling 4-hour and 3-minute match, the longest three-set match in Masters Series history, Nadal saved three match points before winning 3-6, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (9). It was Nadal's fifth straight win over the fourth-ranked Djokovic, but since then, Djokovic has won eight of the 10 meetings, including six finals.
"It's really hard to say that I enjoy playing Rafa or Roger," Djokovic said. "It's a challenge. You know, it is on one side an incredible feeling if you win against them. On the other side, it's very disappointing if you lose because they're your greatest rivals. But I definitely enjoy when I'm playing my best tennis, regardless who is across the net. The way I look at it, it takes a lot of mental energy and physical energy to win against these guys, especially Rafa. He never gives up. You could see that today."
That's the hope for tennis fans, that Nadal takes his already otherworldy game to another place, and his words on Monday night offered promise for 2012.
"Six straight loses, for sure, that's painful," Nadal said. "But I'm going to work every day until that changes."