Rafael Nadal looks to break a six match losing streak against top seed Novak Djokovic on Friday at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia. Djokovic has not dropped against Rafa since Nadal beat him for the French Open title in 2014.
(1) Novak Djokovic vs (5) Rafael Nadal
Djokovic bounced back from his worst set in years to dispatch of Thomaz Bellucci in three sets on Thursday. The Serb was uncharacteristically spraying errors and generally looking flat as the Brazilian bageled him 6-0 in the opening set. Djokovic won just five points on-serve in that set. In the second, Djokovic bounced back with a much better first serve that dominated to win 21 of 25 points. He would break Bellucci once on a single break chance. The third set was done early when Djokovic broke to open, consolidated and rode that to a 6-2 finish.
Nadal had his own issues with Nick Kyrgios in the third round. The 21-year-old Aussie went toe-to-toe with Rafa in the opening set. The decisive blows came in a tiebreak, where Kyrgios prevailed 7-3. Nadal responded immediately like Djokovic did with a break at-love on Kyrgios to open the second set. Kyrgios was hampered by a hip flexor injury to an extent that required treatment in the second set. He would say afterward that it did not effect him that much. Nadal continued to raise his game as he closed out the final two sets 6-2, 6-4. He would break Kyrgios four times in all on 15 chances.
I think this is the exact test that Rafa wanted before Roland Garros. He missed out on the chance last week, when he lost to Andy Murray in the semifinals in Madrid. This time, he gets to test his rediscovered game and confidence against Djokovic for the third time this season. It is the first meeting on clay however since the Serb whipped the lefty 7-5, 6-3, 6-1 in the French Open quarters last year. Nadal seems a much more confident type at this point than he was a year ago in this spot.
Rafa could take to heart the unlikely struggles that Djokovic has seen through two matches in Rome this week. He was hard pressed to shake loose from qualifier Stephane Robert in his opener, winning 7-5, 7-5. That turned out to be nothing compared to the first set on display against Bellucci in round three. Djokovic could not find anything that worked in being blanked in a set for the first time since 2012. His play improved drastically in the final two sets, but Nadal will at least have a little hope with the vulnerability that was shown.
The two meetings this season between Djokovic and Nadal have ended in straight set wins for the top ranked Serb. Their most recent in Indian Wells finished 7-6 (5), 6-2. Djokovic pummeled Nadal at the beginning of the year in Doha 6-1, 6-2. Despite the closer score line in Indian Wells, the M.O. is the same with Djokovic eating into Nadal’s serve far too often. He crafted 12 break chances in Doha and seven in Indian Wells. Djokovic would convert on seven of those in all. Oppositely, Rafa saw just three break chances off the Djokovic serve and could only muster one break.
Those numbers must be different if the result is to be anything other than what has transpired the last six meetings. If you hearken back to Rafa’s last win over Djokovic in the 2014 French Open final, the lefty saw ten break chances against the Serb and allowed nine. The closer to even those numbers can be, the more obvious it will be that Nadal is in the match with a real chance to win.
There are certain to be plenty of punishing baseline rallies in this match. That is how these two operate, especially on clay. You would expect Djokovic to pick on Rafa’s backhand when he can to avoid the top spin off the forehand. For Rafa, there doesn’t seem to be a clear cut Achilles Heel with Djokovic’s ground game. His best bet is hoping that within the long rallies, he can win the court positioning battle enough to win some key points. That is very difficult due to Djokovic’s agility and speed that make him one of the best defenders in the history of the sport. His ability to convert defense into offense is what makes him special and often makes the difference when pitted against top tier players.
This match-up is a huge mental hurdle for Nadal. A win would be monumental, but a hard fought and CLOSE loss could do him wonders ahead of the French Open. He needs to know he can compete with the odds-on favorite to win the title, even if Djokovic has never been able to seal the deal in Paris. The road to a Grand Slam title in Roland Garros undoubtedly goes through Djokovic, one way or the other for Nadal. That makes Friday’s match large for his confidence or lack thereof heading to that tournament.
It’s hard to see Djokovic letting anything like the Bellucci first set happen in successive days, so don’t expect a repeat of that nightmare start. It’s also hard to look past Djokovic’s dominance in this series over the past two years. Rafa will need to find success early if he’s going to push Djokovic in this one. In the end, expect Djokovic to exploit Nadal’s serve and find enough holes in his ground game to earn a win.
Djokovic wins in staight sets