Novak Djokovic has won three Grand Slams and 10 titles overall this year. (David Saffran/Icon SMI)
Before this year, Rafael Nadal had never lost to Novak Djokovic in five tournament finals. He had beaten him for titles on grass, clay and hardcourts.
This year, the Spaniard has faced the Serb six times, all in finals, on all three surfaces. He has lost all six matches. Djokovic is his Rubik's Cube, and if you saw Nadal's body language after loss No. 6 on Monday in the U.S. Open final, you would think that Rafa was ready to smash it out of frustration.
Ask the two players about the role reversal, and they'll tell you the difference this year is belief. Djokovic has it, Nadal a little less so.
"In the big events and matches, the winner is decided by small margins, couple of points," Djokovic said. "I guess the winner is the one that believes in victory more than the other. That's all there is."
Said Nadal: "He's having less mistakes than before. ... He's enough confident in every moment to keep believing in one more ball, one more ball. So that's why."
One more ball is right. For the better part of four sets, the two relentless baseliners displayed a level of tennis that compelled one to reach for a thesaurus in order to find new ways to describe eye-popping rally after eye-popping rally. It was an incredible showcase of speed, footwork and shotmaking. Shots that probably would've been winners against anyone else were retrieved expertly, forcing the players to work that much harder to secure points. (The third set alone was 84 minutes, and the four-set slugfest lasted more than four hours.) When Nadal got traction in a rally, Djokovic somehow came up with an answer. More often than not, Nadal blinked. You don't say that too often.
"I always had big trouble to beat him here [on] this surface in the past," said Nadal, who, despite the six consecutive losses, is 16-13 all time against Djokovic. "It's not an exception now, especially because he's doing better than ever. His level, for sure, is fantastic. He's doing very well mentally, everything. So just accept that. Accept the challenge and work."
The first thing he'll need to start working on is his serve, which was noticeably improved when he won the U.S. Open last year and was noticeably absent this year. Without it, Djokovic broke Nadal 11 times and never seemed concerned when he fell behind early in the first and second sets.
"I didn't have one free point in both sets," Nadal said. "A few moments that you are tired and the few moments you really need something, I never had these free points. Last year, I had [them]; I didn't have [them] this year. My serve has to come back to another level."
As for Djokovic, what can be said about his year that hasn't already been said? He is now 64-2 and
27-1 25-1 in Grand Slams, and he joined Juan Martin del Potro (2009 U.S. Open) as the only players to defeat Roger Federer and Nadal at the same major. He's won 10 titles: the Australian Open, Dubai, Indian Wells, Miami, Belgrade, Madrid, Rome, Wimbledon, Montreal and the U.S. Open.
Despite amassing what John McEnroe repeatedly called "the best year in tennis history," Djokovic isn't ready to concede that he's satisfied.
"There is still a lot of things to prove to myself, to the tennis world," he said.