The two best tennis players in the world – Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic – collide Sunday in the men’s final at the Miami Tennis Masters. It’s the 40th edition of their great rivalry and it’s a fitting conclusion to a wild first three months of the tennis season.
Nadal has the edge here in the series leading 22-17, however Djokovic has gotten the better of Rafa of late. Djokovic has won two straight post-US Open and since the start of 2011 he’s 10-6 against the Spaniard, a run that includes an incredible Miami title over Rafa in 2011.
“My thoughts are always the same,” Nadal said about Novak. “The only chance to win against Novak is to play to the limit, play my best. I will see. I know I have to be solid with my serve. I need to play aggressive, no doubt about that.”
And after a shaky start to the season, Djokovic seems to have found his game after winning Indian Wells over Roger Federer. And without new coach Boris Becker – who Djokovic keeps defending every chance he gets! – the Serb has run off 31 straight match wins since the US Open.
Nadal began the year in excellent form taking Doha, but then his season got derailed by a back injury in the Australian Open final. He fought through a Rio title in his return but then got bitten by the dog, Alexandr Dolgopolov, at Indian Wells. He’s playing better now, though.
“In general, I think I played more solid than what I did in Indian Wells and Rio and I played with better movement too,” said Nadal. “I lost my serve only one time during the whole tournament and that’s very important for me on this surface.”
With the back issue in the rearview, Nadal looks downright nasty on these slow, heavy courts in Miami. But it’s a place he’s surprisingly never won at while his opposition has been crowned champion three times.
“Miami is a very important tournament that I never had the chance to win in the past,” said Nadal. “It is my fourth final, by the way. Positive results. To be able to play four finals in one tournament is because you did well, and I’m going to try to be ready for Sunday.”
At the start of the event I had Djokovic winning here. And even though I think Nadal is playing better now than Novak, I just think Djokovic somehow wins this. But it will start with Novak’s serve and then with his backhand down-the-line. If neither of those are clicking Nadal will win this easily. He’ll need both to be online if he’s to take a fourth Miami title.
“I have seen a couple matches of Rafa’s [this week],” said Djokovic. “He’s hitting the ball really well, feeling confident on this court. He’s never won this tournament, so I think that is extra motivation for him.
“It’s going to be interesting,” Djokovic said. “I’m going to be very well rested and physically prepared for Sunday.”
And the rest part is somewhat worrisome. Djokovic has played just three matches in Miami after two his guys withdrew. And he now hasn’t played since the Andy Murray win on Wednesday. So there is some concern there – we remember when Fognini withdrew from the French in 2011 and I still think that hurt Novak’s rhythm!
But Nadal also had a withdrawal yesterday so maybe they offset, it’s hard to say though I think both would rather have played and won than to have advanced via a walkover.
That said, I think this is a huge statement match for both players. It’s their first meeting of the season and for my money this single match will ultimately determine who takes the No. 1 ranking at the end of the year. It will either validate Novak’s return to form or it will validate Nadal is still the best player as we head into the clay.
And here I think it goes Novak’s way for the simple reason that he’s the better player on the hardcourts. But he’s going to absolutely have to play well, because we know Nadal will.
The pick: Djokovic in three
ESPN2 has live coverage of the men’s final starting at 2:30pm ET.
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