After a grueling three-set semifinal against sharp-striking Scot Andy Murray in the Italian Open, few expected rising star Novak Djokovic to have much left in the tank Sunday for his clash against clay court impresario Rafael Nadal.
Instead, the superb Serb ran the tables yet again, winning his 7th straight tournament in an undefeated 2011 season, and dealing No. 1 Nadal his fourth straight loss in a final to Djokovic.
Next up, the French Open, where Djokovic gets to take his many ongoing quests onto the red clay of Roland Garros:
- His 2011 unbeaten streak, now at 37 games. Djokovic's 2011 streak is second only to John McEnroe, who had a 42-0 streak in 1984.
- His overall unbeaten streak (includes two Davis Cup wins last fall) at 39. He is seven matches behind Guillermo Vilas' Open Era record set in 1977.
- His chance to win his first French Open, and third grand slam overall. He won the Australian Open in 2008 and 2011.
- Keep his hopes alive of winning all four slams in a calendar year.
- And, of course, seize the No. 1 ranking for the first time in his 7-year pro career. This could, and most likely, will happen one week after the French Open ends in early June.
On Sunday, Djokovic showed signs of weariness as he inflicted a crisp 6-4, 6-4 defeat on the frustrated Spaniard, who has now lost 4 straight matches this spring to Djokovic -- the last two on clay where he was deemed invincible. Djokovic stretched his legs repeatedly between points, and took one serious tumble. But on the key points he got that crazed look in his eye that says 'I will not be denied.'
Ferocious Nadal usually stalks the court snorting and glaring like a bull as he pummels his opponents into dust. In Rome Sunday (as was the case last Sunday in Madrid), he had more of a befuddled look, as the tennis balls kept coming back to his side of the net - harder, and at more acute angles spinning away from him.
At the beginning of the year, the most intriguing storyline for the men's tour was Roger Federer - how would the legendary all-time great hold up as he enters the back end of his career, turning 30 this summer.
Instead, perennial No. 3 guy Djokovic (who spent the last four years in the shadow of the twin titans of tennis, Federer and Nadal) suddenly decides he's had enough. At 23 years old (he turns 24 in a week), the Serb gets stronger, fitter, and we're told by the commentators, goes on a gluten-free diet.
All of that helped. But something else happened between the ears of the young player. And it gives hope to everyone who has struggled along and not quite made it to the top. It's all about the attitude.
Hail to the soon-to-be king. The No. 3 guy who stepped it up a notch - and achieved perfection.