A funny thing happened on Rafael Nadal's path toward becoming the greatest player of all-time. While Nadal was tailoring his game, successfully, toward taking out the great Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic was tailoring his to take out Nadal. Nadal was learning about the angles and power that it takes to hold Roger at bay, while Djokovic was figuring out the depth, positioning and conditioning it takes to knock off Rafa. Nadal cleared an incredible hurdle, dominating the Federer series and, at one point, winning 32 consecutive matches in 2008; and then Djokovic stole his thunder and completely demoralized him for much of 2011.
Match No. 1: French Open 2006 Quarterfinals -- Nadal, 6-4, 6-4--RET (Clay)
Match No. 2: Indian Wells 2007 Finals -- Nadal, 6-2, 7-5 (Hard)
Match No. 3: Miami 2007 Quarterfinals -- Djokovic, 6-3, 6-4 (Hard)
Match No. 4: Rome 2007 Quarterfinals -- Nadal, 6-2, 6-3 (Clay)
Match No. 5: French Open 2007 Semifinals -- Nadal, 7-5, 6-4, 6-2 (Clay)
Match No. 6: Wimbledon 2007 Semifinals -- Nadal, 3-6, 6-1, 4-1--RET (Grass)
Match No. 7: Montreal 2007 Semifinals -- Djokovic, 7-5, 6-3 (Hard)
Match No. 8: Masters Cup 2007 Round Robin -- Nadal, 6-4, 6-4 (Hard)
Match No. 9: Indian Wells 2008 Semifinals -- Djokovic, 6-3, 6-2 (Hard)
Match No. 10: Hamburg 2008 Semifinals -- Nadal, 7-5, 2-6, 6-2 (Clay)
Match No. 11: French Open 2008 Semifinals -- Nadal, 6-4, 6-2, 7-6 (Clay)
Match No. 12: Queen's Club 2008 Finals -- Nadal, 7-6, 7-5 (Grass)
Match No. 13: Cincinnati 2008 Semifinals -- Djokovic, 6-1, 7-5 (Hard)
Match No. 14: Beijing Olympics Semifinals -- Nadal, 6-4, 1-6, 6-4 (Hard)
Match No. 15: Davis Cup 2009 -- Nadal, 6-4, 6-4, 6-1 (Clay)
Match No. 16: Monte Carlo 2009 Finals -- Nadal, 6-3, 2-6, 6-1 (Clay)
Match No. 17: Rome 2009 Finals -- Nadal, 7-6, 6-2 (Clay)
Match No. 18: Madrid 2009 Semifinals -- Nadal, 3-6, 7-6, 7-5 (Clay)
Match No. 19: Cincinnati 2009 Semifinals -- Djokovic, 6-1, 6-4 (Hard)
Match No. 20: Paris 2009 Semifinals -- Djokovic, 6-2, 6-3 (Hard)
Match No. 21: ATP World Tour Finals 2009 Round Robin -- Djokovic, 7-6, 6-3 (Hard)
Match No. 22: U.S. Open 2010 Finals -- Nadal, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2 (Hard)
Match No. 23: ATP World Tour Finals 2010 Round Robin -- Nadal, 7-5, 6-2 (Hard)
Match No. 24: Indian Wells 2011 Finals -- Djokovic, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 (Hard)
Match No. 25: Miami 2011 Finals -- Djokovic, 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (Hard)
Match No. 26: Madrid 2011 Finals -- Djokovic, 7-5, 6-4 (Clay)
Match No. 27: Rome 2011 Finals -- Djokovic, 6-4, 6-4 (Clay)
Match No. 28: Wimbledon 2011 Finals -- Djokovic, 6-4, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3 (Grass)
Match No. 29: U.S. Open 2011 Finals -- Djokovic, 6-2, 6-4, 6-7, 6-1 (Hard)
Despite Djokovic's relative youth, these two have played more over time than Nadal and Federer, in part because those two have tended to only play in tournament finals, while Nola and Rafa spent quite a few years meeting in quarterfinals and semifinals (with No. 1 Federer alone on the other side of the bracket). Heading into 2011, things had developed a pattern: Nadal wins on clay (9-0 before 2011) and grass (2-0), and Djokovic, at worst, breaks even on hard courts (7-5 before 2011). Djokovic was always built to challenge Nadal -- he ended Rafa's 32-match winning streak in 2008 and did, after all, hold a winning record on hard courts -- but Nadal was still superior overall.
But then Djokovic got a little lighter, a little faster, and a little more well-conditioned; suddenly, the things he had always been able to do on hard courts were working on all courts. He won 14 of 18 sets versus Nadal in 2011, including all four on clay and 12 of the final 14 overall. He was able to avoid breaking down physically against the incredibly hard-hitting Nadal, and eventually Rafa would break down mentally.
Heading into the finals of the 2012 Australian Open, however, it is unclear where Djokovic is from a physical standpoint. He appeared to tweak a hamstring against David Ferrer in the quarterfinals, and he was immersed in the longest, greatest, most grueling match of the tournament (his amazing, five-set semifinal win over Andy Murray*) while Nadal was resting, having already defeated Federer the night before. (Yet another way tennis does the No. 1 no favors: not only might they draw tougher opponents in earlier rounds because of uneven, random draws, but their opponents might get an extra full day of rest heading into the finals.) Djokovic was stretching his legs between points quite often against Murray, and while that may have been gamesmanship to an extent, it was still a sign that Nola might not be 100 percent. And you almost have to be 100 percent to take out a healthy Nadal.
* While Nadal tuned his game to beat Federer and Djokovic aimed for Nadal, it appears that Murray might be in the process of mastering the "beating Djokovic" blueprint. For two straight years now, they have played in a serious match-of-the-year caliber outing.
Djokovic has dominated, in part, because of his ability to let Nadal (and everybody else on tour) punch himself out, then respond with body blow after body blow. Nadal almost killed himself to win the third set of their U.S. Open final last September (like Murray winning the third set in the semifinals), then Djokovic just ran him ragged and stole his legs in the fourth set. If he cannot maintain that physical edge, the going gets rough.
Men's tennis has become so incredibly grueling and impressive, and these two players are the major reasons why. Federer created angles that have never been seen before, but Djokovic and Nadal (and to a lesser extent thus far, Murray) can chase down shots at all angles, respond with power, turn defense into offense in a way that has to completely blow Michael Chang's mind, and force their opponent to hit one more shot to win the point. And then maybe one more on top of that. And when these two play each other, just watching is exhausting. And rewarding. Very, very rewarding. Because of conditioning alone, I give Nadal a slight edge this time around, but Djokovic could make that pick look very, very foolish after a day of rest in the hyperbaric chamber.
Indian Wells 2007
Masters Cup 2007
ATP World Tour Finals 2009
U.S. Open 2010
ATP World Tour Finals 2010
Indian Wells 2011
U.S. Open 2011