ThrowbackTimes Rome: Novak Djokovic halts Rafael Nadal for a 37-0 start

Novak Djokovic won just two ATP titles in 2010, playing well enough to stay third in the rankings behind Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer but struggling to make that last step that would have raised his game to a higher level. That all changed after winning the Davis Cup crown for Serbia at the end of the season, as he became a dominant figure in men’s tennis between the Australian Open and the US Open in 2011. Novak improved the crucial elements of his game and physical strength to leave Federer, Nadal and others far behind. Djokovic won the season’s opening 43 matches before suffering a surprising loss in the Roland Garros semi-final that may cost him a calendar Grand Slam, the feat not seen since Rod Laver in 1969. Before Paris, Novak won all seven tournaments he had entered and finished the season with three Majors and five Masters 1000 titles on his tally to earn a place among the tennis immortals at 24.

The Serb ousted Andy Murray in the Australian Open final, Roger Federer in the Dubai title match and his most dangerous rival Rafael Nadal four times in a row in the Masters 1000 events finals in Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid and Rome. On May 15, Novak claimed the second title in Rome after toppling a five-time champion Nadal 6-4, 6-4 in grueling two hours and 13 minutes for the 37th win in 37 matches in 2011! Nadal gave his very best to stay in touch with an in-form rival and tried to finally beat him after three straight defeats in the big finals but with no luck, as Novak proved his dominance for the seventh win in their last nine encounters. Both players served above 70%, and Djokovic drew more from that, pushing Nadal to the limits on the second serve (Rafa was five from 20 after missing the first) and converting four out of 11 break chances. Nadal grabbed 38% of the return points and turned that into three break chances and two return games, losing ground in the crucial moments by a more confident rival.

Novak Djokovic beat Rafael Nadal in straight sets in the 2011 Rome final.

Djokovic had more winners and errors, overpowering Nadal in the more extended rallies to break the Spaniard’s concrete defense and continue his stellar run since the end of the previous season. The clash kicked off with six easy holds on both sides in some 30 minutes (they served above 80%), forging a baseline battle that kept the crowd on the edge of their seats. The first big moment for the returners came in game eight when Nadal missed an easy forehand to hand two break points to his rival. Novak converted the first when the Spaniard failed to control his backhand and moved 5-3 in front to serve for the set in the next one. Nadal refused to surrender and broke back after Novak’s poor forehands to reduce the deficit to 4-5 and stay in contention. Nonetheless, Novak remained calm and ruled the court again in game ten, scoring his second break in a row with a picture-perfect backhand crosscourt winner to take the opener 6-4 in 56 minutes.

At the beginning of the second set, the Serb held at 15 and stole Rafa’s serve in game two on his third break chance to move a set and a break up. Like in the opener, Djokovic played a loose service game after getting the lead to keep the rival in. Rafa pulled the break back in game three when Novak’s drop shot landed long and stayed competitive. The Spaniard fended off two break points in game four and leveled the score at 2-2 with a service winner, digging deep to stay locked with Novak at 4-4 after almost two hours of play.

The Serb experienced a bit of trouble in the next game but fired two big forehands at deuce to make a crucial hold that sent him 5-4 up and forced Nadal to serve for staying in the tournament. A five-time champion placed his backhand beyond the baseline to give the Serb three match points, facing an ultimate challenge if he wanted to survive and extend the encounter. Rafa delivered three good points to wipe the danger away before Novak converted the fourth match point after a lucky net cord to wrap up this thrilling encounter in straight sets and maintain his unbeaten run in 2011.