Analysis: Djokovic is playing better than Nadal. What’s changed?

Patrick Mouratoglou
Busted Racquet

Patrick Mouratoglou is a world-renowned tennis coach who has worked with Marcos Baghdatis and Aravane Rezai. His French tennis academy is considered one of the top in the world. He is a frequent contributor to Busted Racquet.

It was the dawning of a new era on Sunday in Miami. We are now in the era of Nadal and Djokovic. They're the two fittest players on the ATP, both in top physical shape, with a great fighting spirit and mental toughness. Between them, they should share, and fight for, a lot of major titles in the years to come.

If the Serbian's victory over the Spaniard in Indian Wells was surprising to many (especially to Rafa), Miami's victory had a very different feel. California wasn't a fluke. Nole showed in Florida that he's playing better at the moment than Nadal. This is a revolution.

We can't talk about a changing of the guard just yet though. Nadal will have to analyze those two defeats and think about a plan to fight Nole because his opponent seemed to be far superior in all areas this weekend. Tactically, the Serb dominated.

How did it happen? Rafa is used to settling in the diagonal and turning around his backhand in order to fire with his forehand. It didn't work against Nole because the Serbian has always found a way to strike at Nadal's backhand with a lot of top spin. This top spin, added to the flight of the ball, put Nadal out of his comfort zone, even when he was able to turn around his backhand. When he went for the forehand above the shoulder, he wasn't hitting hard enough to do damage. Since he changed his motion technically, he never found back in my opinion the whole efficiency on it, especially when he's hitting it above the shoulder. He's playing too much in the middle, has lost his amazing inside out cross-court forehand and doesn't find angles as easily as before.

When stuck on his backhand, he pushed it short and was punished by Djokovic, who is now able to crush forehands much harder than he had in the past. Rafa looked weak on his backhand and it looked like a hitch in his game. Djokovic realized this and put him under tremendous pressure on that side. The world No. 1 looked fragile and timid on it, trying all the time to find a way not to play it.

Dominated, Nadal then tried to use the other diagonal to change the game. He's now playing his backhand pretty high to Nole's backhand in order to force Djokovic to turn around to his forehand. But each time he played too short in this strategy, Djokovic took the ball very early and hit hard on Rafa's forehand. Rafa then played it even shorter and missed.

Positioning also played a huge role. The Serbian remained very close to the baseline throughout the match, refusing to move back and always ready to step into the court. He pounced on every opportunity. Rafa was too far behind his baseline and that's also why he couldn't hurt his opponent and was unable to take advantage of some short balls of the Serbian.

How Nadal responds to these problems will be of great importance, as will his mental dealings with his current defeats. He knows that he's not allowed to lose on clay against Djokovic, because that would be giving up his last upper hand, much like when Roger Federer lost to Nadal at Wimbledon. If Rafa loses domination on clay, it's anybody's game. Even if he doesn't, expect many more beautiful battles between these two in the future.

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