Climbing the Mountain: How High Will Nadal and Djokovic Go?
by Dan Martin | April 2nd, 2008, 12:40 pm

The first two Masters Series events of the year obviously help set the tone for the tennis year. When Jim Courier won consecutive Super 9 titles at Indian Wells and Key Biscayne in 1991, it helped him gather momentum headed into the French Open, and Courier won his first Grand Slam title. Michael Chang pulled the same double play in 1992 and parlayed it into a #4 seed at the U.S. Open and a 5 set semifinal loss. Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras’ clashes in the finals of Indian Wells and Key Biscayne contributed to their epic struggle for #1 in 1995. From Marcelo Rios in 1998, to Roger Federer in 2005 and 2006 to Novak Djokovic in 2007, strong showings at both events have boded well for those who demonstrate great form in March and April.

Split Decision in 2008?

Novak Djokovic looked like a man on a collision course with #1 in winning Indian Wells. Mardy Fish played awesome tennis to reach the final. Both men lost in their first matches of Masters Series Miami. This result does not tarnish Novak’s brilliant 2008 or Fish’s rejuvenated career, but neither man leaves Miami with a huge shot of momentum either. Rafael Nadal or Federer could follow their semifinal finishes in Indian Wells with a win in Miami and claim momentum, but the one sided nature of their losses at Indian Wells still told people in the locker room that both men are beatable. If Roddick could put a dent in Federer, his self-confidence would surely increase as such a win combined with his Dubai victory and impending nuptials might create a synergy of confidence for the remainder of 2008. Even if one of those three men wins Miami, no one will have made the splash that Djokovic did in announcing his excellence in 2007 or Federer did in confirming his brilliance in 2005 and 2006.

Roger’s Theory of Relativity

Last Season Roger Federer won the Australian Open and Dubai and accumulated 1300 ranking points in the process. The 2007 Masters Series Indian Wells and Masters SeriesMiami were not nearly as kind to Federer as he accumulated only 80 ranking points at the two events. By reaching the Indian Wells semifinals, Federer added 220 points to his world ranking. Federer will at worst finish Miami with a quarterfinal finish worth 50 points more than he did 2007. Therefore, over these two events Roger has improved his ranking points by at least 270 points. That does not as yet make up for his loss of 845 ranking points from the Australian Open and Dubai, but Federer has rebounded to a degree.

Djokovic accumulated 850 ranking points at Indiana Wells and Miami in 2007. He played sublime tennis to win Indian Wells in March 2008. He has been the clear top dog of 2008 to this point. Still, his loss in his first Miami match means Novak has netted 345 fewer points in these two Master Series events than in 2007. Relative to Roger, Novak has fallen at least 615 ranking points further behind Federer despite winning Indian Wells 2008. Even if Nadal wins Miami, he will only add 100 points to his 2007 totals for these first two Masters Series events. Therefore, Rafa’s best case and Roger’s worst case scenario still leaves Nadal 170 points further behind Roger than he was at the end of Dubai. Obviously if Roger wants to finish 2008 at #1 he will need to win at least one Grand Slam title and likely need to win a few Masters Series shields due to the low number of tournaments he plays, but Roger is still in the 2008 rankings marathon even if he lost the first leg of the race.

The Psychology of Being Close

Reaching #1 is a lifetime goal for most tennis players. Coming close to that goal can complicate life as each shot, point, and match takes on added significance. I do not want to make the quest for #1 sound like Frodo Baggins climbing Mount Doom, but the burden of being near a lifetime goal is a reality. Unlike many team sports, time outs, coaching and substitutions cannot be used to diffuse tension. To reach #1 in tennis a player has to let his or her racket do the talking. Rafael Nadal has not played great tennis since Wimbledon 2007, but he still posted runner-up finishes in France and India, semifinal finishes at Indian Wells, Melbourne and the Masters Cup. This consistent play combined with Nadal’s clay court dominance and Federer’s early missteps left Nadal conceivably within one or two tournaments of the #1 ranking. While Djokovic is certainly capable of beating Nadal on any surface, Rafa’s one sided loss might have been impacted by the fact that defending his title at Indian Wells was a key component to gaining the #1 ranking in the near term. Now, Nadal is somewhat comfortably behind Roger Federer once again.

Novak Djokovic is not as of yet mathematically quite in range of #1, but it is on the horizon of his vision. I was ready after Indian Wells to declare Djokovic in a similar position to Mats Wilander in 1988. Wilander won the Australian Open and Key Biscayne in early 1988 and eventually overtook Ivan Lendl for the #1 ranking. Sometimes the computer has a lag time in declaring #1 even if a lower ranked player is playing the best tennis in the world. Roger Federer was clearly playing the best tennis at the end of the 2003 Masters Cup but did not reach #1 until February 2004. Novak was close to being the unnamed #1 and then he loses his first match in Miami where he was defending champion? Sure a 6’7” opponent and a warning from an umpire can unnerve a player, but Djokovic may not have been ready for all that a repeat of his 2007 win in Miami would have implied about his place in the tennis food chain. I have no doubt that both Nadal and Djokovic have what it takes to reach #1, but I also think each will have to come to terms with the baggage that is associated with being #1 to take that next step. After all, players such as Boris Becker and Jim Courier found being #1 to be a heavy responsibility. For over 4 years no one other than Roger Federer has had to worry about carrying that weight, but the time might be drawing near for burden sharing. In that moment, it will become clear if getting to the top or staying at the top is a harder task. My guess is the heavy lifting is just beginning for Nadal and Djokovic.

Introducing Myself

Finally, I want to introduce myself to the Tennis-X readers. My name is Dan Martin, and I am a life long tennis fan and a sometimes proficient tennis player. My earliest tennis memories revolve around watching the weekend hacking of my father as well as seeing the Jimmy Connors vs. John McEnroe 1982 Wimbledon final. Boris Becker’s 1985 Wimbledon title really hooked me into watching professional tennis. For the better part of two years I wrote a tennis column at and am thankful for that opportunity to write about such a great sport. I am very excited to be writing for a website that covers tennis exclusively.

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38 Comments for Climbing the Mountain: How High Will Nadal and Djokovic Go?

Mia Says:


jane Says:

Thanks for the balanced assessment, and welcome, Dan.

Congrats to Rafa for continuing to even the score with Blake; it seems like once Rafa figures out a player he does so thereafter.

Shital Green Says:

Welcome to the jungle, Dan ! Hope the wonderful creatures of nature will keep your spirit lively here. I like your writing, by the way. Sometimes, you may want to keep it short, though. You know what it counts in blogging: number of comments (the quantity: well, Seth Lloyd, the pioneer of forthcoming quantum computer, would disagree with me, here!). Anyway, what I meant is feed on our animality by throwing occasionally something provocative.

Blake played great in the 1st set, and he was trying to hang on in the 2nd, but simply collapsed after that long game early in the 3rd set. Nadal simply overpowered him.
Congrats to Nadal and all his fans, especially you and Zola.

Dan Martin Says:

Thanks for reading and commenting. Rafa beating Blake certainly gives him momentum in that rivalry.

jane Says:

Thanks Shital. I am always a bit torn when Rafa plays Blake too, because Blake’s such a nice guy who has had such personal obstacles and he’s getting on in age, so I’d like to see him win a bigger tournament. But Rafa is just such a fighter it’s hard not to root for him; I hope he gets to the final, where he’d play either Roddick or Tipsy in an ideal world :-) !

igba Says:

I love Djokovic and wish he wins this one again. Thumbs up for Nadal. I actually enjoyed it.
Djokovic, thumbs up boy, thugh a Nigerian I love your game.

Shital Green Says:

Youzhny more Violent than Safin and McEnroe?

It was 2 days ago, the day before Youzhny lost to Tipsy. He was playing against Almagro in the 3rd round. Here is the craziest thing that ever happened on a tennis court: Youzhny had Ad at 4-5 in the 3rd set but loses a point against Almagro. Out of anger with himself, he bangs his racket frame 3 times on his forehead. There we have a fountain of blood spraying out of his self-inflicted head. He walks around a few yards and asks for a towel to wipe it. It does not stop. Watch the rest in the youtube:

jane Says:

Here’s what Rafa said on his hardcourt records this year and how he feels he’s playing:

“Three most important tournaments this year on hard (courts), I was in the semifinals in all three,” said Nadal. “So I think I’m playing well, for sure, and my opinion is that I am playing much better here than Australia. Right now I am feeling like I am playing at my best level, so that’s important for come to the clay season with more confidence, too. But at the same time, disappointing, because right now finish the hard season and then I’m playing better than before.”


Shital Green,

FYI, a few of us already discussed the Youzhny meltdown under the “Djokovic lays an Egg” thread; we pretty much all concurred that it was embarrassing, to say the least.

Zola Says:

Welcome Dan.Nice to have more writers here.

Rafa played a great match. So did Blae for the first two sets but the third set was just Rafa. When RAfa plays with confidence, he plays great and today was one of those days. Let’s hope he can get to the final.

Blake plays amazingly fast and effective. Probably let’s himself down mentally and doesn’t get out of that corner till the end of the match. In the third set his body language resembled that of his matches with Roger and after the break, I thought the match was over.

Anyway, **hug to Blake fans*** He played great. Rafa had 14 break points and was able to convert only 4, showing ho great Blake defended and played. Great job to both and I am so happy RAfa won…..

Shital Green Says:

The discussion that you guys had in that dark street corner when nobody was around does not count. I did not wait there till the nth number of comments. I did not see what you guys did. I was busy with my school work. It did not happen for me until I saw that this morning on tv, ok?

Don’t tell me you already knew this one and you guys already discussed in some secret club of yours. Here is the answer to the quiz I asked. The ATP ranking points for Olympics are:

Gold Medal – 400
Silver Medal – 280
Bronze Medal – 205
Loser 3rd/4th – 155
Quarterfinals – 100
Round of 16 – 50
Round of 32 – 25
1st Round – 1

Here is the 2nd part of the quiz. Do players get race points, too? If so, what are they?

Zola Says:

how did you do that?
I seriously tried to find the points, but couldn’t ! Great job!
Race points are always 1/5 of the tournament points. Is it the same here?

jane Says:

Thanks for the update on the “Quiz” Shital Green; I looked online for the answer but couldn’t find it. How did you? Secret source?

jane Says:


Wish I had seen Rafa’s match; for him to win that 3rd set 6-1 really says something considering that before last week he’d never beaten James.

I know he’s got a tough one next with Berdych though; Rafa has lost all of his 3 hardcourt matches against him. However, Rafa showed today that he can turn those sorts of H2H records around, so we can hope that he will do well against Berdych too!

Dan Martin Says:

That is a big opportunity match for Berdych to once again claim some upward mobility, but my gut and head say Rafa is the favorite. Maybe it was the way Berdych went out at 07 Wimbledon and the 07 U.S. Open, but he needs to prove he is a tougher player. This is a nice chance to do so.

Zola Says:

I am always a bit skeptical after Rafa’a big wins. Try not to get my hopes up too much. I was so happy he won Tsonga and Blake back to back and I had seen Djoko was not playing his best in IW. I thought Rafa would win, and he lost.

Now he is more fresh here. This one was his first 3-setter and not as big as a challenge as the previou one. Although it was a difficult match. Still, berdych has been playing great and this is his favorite surface.

I have to stay with positives. In the worst case if Rafa loses, he has the points added from the semis and he has beaten Blake twice in two weeks. I can live with that. If he wins, then it will be huge for me to see Rafa win Blake and Berdych back to back. I really really hope Rafa plays with the same fire and intesnity he played all week and I hope he can win. Come on RAfa! You can do it! VAmos!

Zola Says:

the Youzhny video had 500,000 hits in one night!
Maybe it was alla setup to promote tennis!

Sue Says:

Sorry, but I have to take strong issue with your comment ” While Djokovic is clearly capable of beating Nadal on any surface”. Hard courts – clearly ; grass – debatable, although yet to be proven. On clay – despite playing some of his best tennis on clay last year at both Rome and RG, Djokovic was unable to take even one set from Nadal. How does this possibly translate to clearly being able to beat him on clay ?

ferix Says:

i know there are many rafa fans here, and i really like him too. but this is a great opportunity for the big berd to breakthrough and join rafa and djoker at the top.

i’ve been waiting for he and gasquet to get their act together for a long time. he was the second of the new talents to beat federer – way back in 2004. so i hope he wins this tournament. the more the merrier! 2008 is the year for generational change!

Dan Martin Says:

Sue I admit Rafa has lost all of 1 match on clay since mid 2005 and that obviously means it would be hard for Djokovic to beat him on the dirt, but the way I see it is these guys are young and will play one another quite a few times over the next 5-10 years and I think Djokovic is good on all surfaces so he may win a couple on clay even if that is a surface where Nadal is heavily favored against anyone. I probably should have clarified that a bit more.

Skorocel Says:

Djoker beating Nadal on clay? NO WAY! At least not now… Remember last year? The Serb was playing perhaps his career-best claycourt match in that RG semi, yet he had absolutely NO CHANCE and went out in three… The way Nadal frustrated Blake yesterday, I have serious doubts if there’ll be even someone who can at least push him to limits in this year’s claycourt season (not to even think of someone who can BEAT him)… I mean, how on earth can you beat a player, who you just can’t hit a winner against?! By shooting him? Kicking him in his ass? Punching him? Huh? That’s like playing against the wall… Mission impossible!

roki Says:

I laugh last night watching Blake and Nadal. Man, guy is playing 3 to 5 meters behind the baseline he almost can not hit winners from there if it is a really tight match (it can be some defensive shot but that is it). That is not tennis… someone should just hit drop shots or slices and make him run to the net and back to baseline :D that would keep him well tired :) if that is even possible.

Zola Says:

no offense taken. But Berdych should try his luck somewhere else. I want Rafa to win!

To me, it is not the points ( as impostant as they are). It is the progression in Rafa’s hard court game that I enjoy. Berdych has been playing a great tournament and has advantage over Rafa on hard courts. The normal outcome is for him to win. But if Rafa can pull off a win against berdych in a semifinal of a HC MS, that will be just grand!Come on Rafa! you can do it!

Djoko has to be better than Federer to win Rafa on clay. Of course nothing is impossible and both players are improving. I can say by the token that Rafa can beat Djoko in US Open. Very remote possibility, but not impossible.

Zola Says:

ferix, i forgot this . :)

I know you want berdych to win and it is OK. If it was someone other than Rafa ( for example Djoko, ) I would have rooted for Berdych! but this time I really really hope Rafa can win! :)

jane Says:

I finally got the chance to watch the Blake/Rafa match Zola, as TSN aired it this morning.

That 3rd set was a study in contrasts; it was like Blake just mentally gave up after the first break, and meanwhile Rafa got in “the zone”. For instance, Blake hit a beautiful backhand but Rafa just straightened it out for a down-the-line winner to the very back corner. Some great stuff from Rafa on hardcourts. Too bad Blake went away though: a focused Blake and on form Rafa would’ve been a more exciting 3rd set in some ways.

Zola Says:

I am glad you watched it. Rafa was nervous in the first set. He always plays much better and in the “zone” when he is relaxed. The third set was exactly that.

And that look of resignation on Blake’s face was hard to take. I have mixed feelings for Blake. Like his game. he is as aggressive and fast as can be. But against Fed he always gives up easily and the same thing happened in the third set. My immediate thought was that now Blake is thinking :” No, now it is two of them!”

Rafa’s match against Kiefer and PHM was better. I am just hoing his game to be perfect tomorrow and I am praying the Godz of tennis , for the match to be during the day.

what do you think about Rafa/Berdych. berdych is certainly “in the zone” now, winning all his matcher very easily. I think the key for Rafa will be a good serve and an aggressive game ( and a hot, sunny day!)

jane Says:

I think Berdych is one of those “potential” guys (like Gasquet and Murray) and hardcourt seems to be his best surface. But with Berdych he can get nervous and make the wrong choice at the wrong time, particularly, it seems, when he’s up against another top ten player. His semi against Fed (or was it 1/4?…anyhow) at the AO this year is a case in point. He could’ve won the first set but made a couple of very bad choices and lost it.

If Rafa pushes him and stays aggressive against him like he did in that 3rd set against Blake, then Rafa can win. Rafa can’t retreat though. His physical and mental aggression have to be there.

And yes, I think a hot and sunny day will work to Rafa’s advantage! ;-)

jane Says:

Sorry that was the R16 for the Berdych / Fed match and in the first set Fed won by a break, which he got when Berdych went for a drop shot, and then in the second set it went to a t.b. and Berdych was up 5-2. When he had set point he went for *another* drop shot and missed it and then made a forehand error. So bad choices.

If it’s tight against Rafa and he makes the same choices then Rafa should be through to the final (besides, Rafa can chase down almost any dropper). Of course it depends on day form for both of them. But Rafa likely won’t make bad decisions under pressure….

jane Says:

Off topic (sorry but didn’t know where to write this): How is it that Davydenko, who won only one title in 2007, is a top four player still? Is it because he’s a perennial semi-finalist? It seems so, though his results haven’t been that great thus far this year. Yet he may, once more, be a semi-finalist here.

What is it about Davydenko’s game? Consistency? Tenacity? Quickness? Can someone with better tennis acumen than I clue me in? Does he even have a “major weapon”?

Look at Roddick & Blake, who are both ranked below Davy, yet have 5-0 and 6-0 H2Hs against him.

I just don’t find watching many of Davydenko’s matches super compelling (though there’s certainly been some exciting ones). Maybe it’s his apparent lack of charisma / personality on the court. I don’t know. Anyhow I’m thinking about it as I watch him presently beating Tipsy (1st set & already a steady cruising altitude for Davy, though Tipsy’s been know to come back).

Any thoughts on Davydenko? Will he stay in the top 5 this year?

jane Says:

Ah…it’s his return game, at least in part. He also has a leading 1st serve % in terms of stats.

FoT Says:

Dan Martin – I enjoyed reading your article and thanks for breaking down the points as simply as you did. Great stuff.

jane Says:

“With Davydenko advancing, it guarantees an all-Top 10 semifinals in Miami for the first time since 1988.” ATP website.

I was wrong about his season so far, I guess it’s Davy’s best.

Skorocel Says:

roki said: “That is not tennis…”

Got it right :)

Shital Green Says:

Congratulations to Roddick !
Could I be happier than this moment! This moment must be celebrated by all north Americans and all A-Rod’s fans, especially the die-hard fans like Von.
This is as sweet as Djoko’s victory could have been.
A-Rod denied the title to the so-called GOAT. The GOAT without a title so far this year must be a saddest and heart-scalding moment to handle for his fans. I will join with you to observe a moment of silence. Let us mourn together !!!

However, be discreet, Fed-fans, not to attribute his loss to the fictional mono. Roddick beat him and beat him solidly. It was a true victory, earned with a great play by A-Rod.
And let’s celebrate !!!

jane Says:

Certainly Shital Green – this is a nice moment for tennis and a well deserved win for Andy, who is a player that never gives up; after losing to Fed 15 times, he just went out there and took the W.


jane Says:

Let me clarify – this is a nice moment because it’s great to see an underdog win and a champ challenged.

ferix Says:

zola, jane

i am looking forward to an awesome match today.

i’ll start by saying rafa deserves a hard court title to start the year. he’s been as good as the djoker and he would not look out of place as world no 1.

does anybody else recall a bit of spite between rafa and berdych a while back, when berdych initally had the upper hand? i think rafa did an awesome job to ultimately win “round 1” of their battles.

i guess what i am saying is i want to see “round 2”. so i am rooting for berdych today. may the best win.

jane Says:

Rafa did it again; reversed another hardcourt stat. He’s a learner, that Spaniard, and about as tenacious a player as ever.

Here’s hoping for a Roddick v/Rafa final!

Dan Martin Says:

Rafa is the man when it comes to intensity and energy. Thanks to all of you for reading and commenting and generating subsequent discussions.

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