Almost unbeatable. That was Rafael Nadal's verdict yesterday (Saturday) on Novak Djokovic, who had just breezed past him in a semi-final that resembled a glorified training session. The gap -between these two legends of the game was so great that Nadal did not even seem disgruntled afterwards, for he knew that he had been outclassed.
This is truly the era of the Djokopoly. Yesterday's victory was his 81st of the season, the highest figure since Nadal himself clocked 82 in 2008. But the r-eally frightening thing is that he has now reached the finals of 15 tournaments in a row. To lift a major title, you know you will have to score a victory over the runaway world No?1. And here is another alarming statistic: Roger
Federer is the only man to have beaten him more than once this season.
"Novak for the moment is almost unbeatable," Nadal said. "Hitting amazing. The return always amazing. This year he is serving great. And then he is able to play with no mistakes and changing -directions so easy, playing so, so deep. He's doing everything good. He was better than me and he deserved to do what he did during the whole season. He played just fantastic. When somebody's doing like this, the only thing I can do is congratulate him and wish not the best of luck for the next year."
The direction of yesterday's semifinal was established early on, as Djokovic struck his backhand with withering power and control to win 12 of the first 16 points.
Nadal was coming off a marathon pool match with David Ferrer on Friday, which had dragged out to
2?hr 37?min, and his engine seemed slow to reach operating temperature. Balls that he would normally have run down were flying past his outstretched racquet.
To the relief of the 17,800-strong crowd, which included David Beckham and gymnast Louis Smith, Nadal began to compete more strongly. He strung together a series of service holds, but he was never able to put any pressure on the Djokovic serve, and indeed did not bring up any break points in the match.
Meanwhile, Djokovic was starting to play with his foe in true cat-and-mouse fashion, using drop shots to bring him to the net and then cruelly batting the ball over his head to send him scurrying back again. As the second set wore on, Nadal's footwork reverted to its former sluggishness, and he lost four of the last five games to go down 6-3, 6-3. It was a cross-court backhand winner from Djokovic, appropriately enough, that sealed the victory.
The result means that Djokovic has moved level with Nadal in their head-to-head series for the first time. They have now won 23 matches each, in what has become the longest rivalry in Open era history, but Djokovic is on a roll, with eight wins from their last nine meetings.
Should he go ahead next year, he will be in a unique position, because so few players have ever established a winning record against Nadal. In fact, only seven men hold that distinction at present. And only two of those (Nikolay Davydenko and Dominic Hrbaty, who are both retired) have played Nadal more than twice.
"I don't want to be arrogant," Nadal said, "but between two good players, Novak and me, to have a very tight head-to-head. I think that's normal."
Asked whether he would practise in the off-season with the goal of beating Djokovic in mind, he demurred. "I
never practise thinking what do I have to do to beat Novak, what do I have to do to beat Roger. My motivation has
always been just personal, that I want to improve myself, I want to be better. That's what I am going to try to keep doing.
"As I said before the tournament, I was not able to think about Novak for the whole season. I have been playing in another league. Seems like the last month and a half, two months, I was in this league. So my motivation and my goal is try to keep being in that top league - that is the top five, top four of the world. That's my goal, and we'll see if I am able to keep doing this."
Finally, Nadal offered his opinion on next week's Davis Cup final, suggesting that he supported Belgium's choice of clay for the surface.
"For the second player for Britain" - who will be either Kyle Edmund or James Ward - "I think both play better on hard courts. Andy [Murray] plays very well in every surface, but for Belgium, in their mind is probably to try to win two points against the British No?2, then to win the doubles."