The theme of royalty echoed through the Sony Ericsson Open last week. The tournament on Key Biscayne, Fla., was visited by the self-proclaimed King, LeBron James. In the players' lounge competitors and coaches watched TV reports of Prince William's upcoming nuptials. And on the court, Serbia's Novak Djokovic looked for all the world like the sport's new benevolent despot.
On Sunday the No. 2--ranked Djokovic won his fourth title of 2011 by beating No. 1 Rafael Nadal in their second final in two weeks. The insta-classic match, which ended 4--6, 6--3, 7--6, was a war of wills that lasted more than three hours and removed all lingering doubts about Djokovic's heart. "To be able to win such a close match against somebody [as] strong mentally and physically as Nadal is a great achievement," Djokovic said.
It was his 24th victory of the year and made him the first male player to enter the clay-court season undefeated since John McEnroe in 1984. "It's Novak's playground right now," says Mardy Fish, who lost to Djokovic in the semifinals. "He's crushing us."
For four years Djokovic has been touted as the player most likely to break up the Federer-Nadal trust. Federer, lamentably, seems to have lost his magic—his meek, error-filled loss to Nadal in the other semi was painful to watch—leaving Nadal-Djokovic as the hot rivalry in the men's game. Nadal, 24, and Djokovic, 23, have split their last 10 matches and figure to play plenty more in the coming months.
April 10, 2011
Djokovic has never had Federer's flair or Nadal's funkadelic spins, but his game is efficient, powerful and lacking anything resembling a weakness. He rivals Nadal in foot speed and has upgraded his serve. Plus, he's become ruthless. Djokovic has already served seven bagels (6--0 sets) in 2011; the record for an entire year is nine.
In the past Djokovic was hindered by a respiratory problem—or, cynics suggested, poor fitness—that caused him shortness of breath in long, hot matches. Bolstered by an off-season fitness regimen and a better diet, he's breathing easy. He's won his four 2011 titles in the heat and humidity of Florida, California, Dubai and Australia. On Sunday it was Nadal who looked more tired in the final set.
Once regarded as the ATP's court jester, Djokovic now comports himself like a champion. At Indian Wells he took the lead in organizing a players' benefit in Miami that raised more than $100,000 for victims of Japan's natural disaster. "It is only right," he says, "to help those in need."
So, does the men's game have a new king? Djokovic won't go there. "I don't feel invincible; what I feel is big confidence," he says. "It's as simple as that."
Now on SI.com
Read Jon Wertheim's Tennis Mailbag every Wednesday at SI.com/tennis