Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Joko toys with rival Rafa

Takes surprisingly easy win in Florida

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KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- It's inarguably the most prolific, if not the greatest, most riveting rivalry in tennis.

However, on this splendid, sun-splashed Sunday afternoon in the Sony Open final, most of the sensational shot-making and defence came from one side of the purple courts as second-ranked Novak Djokovic dominated the world's No. 1 Rafael Nadal from start to finish in a 6-3, 6-3 lesson to win his fourth title on Key Biscayne.

Djokovic may trail their storied rivalry 22-18, but he leads 11-9 in finals. On hard courts it appears that the slender Serb has figured out his longtime friend where he holds a 14-7 edge, including three straight-set victories in a row.

"The best performance of the tournament came in the right moment on Sunday against the biggest rival," said Djokovic, who surpassed Pete Sampras's three titles here, but still trails Andre Agassi by two for the record. "The fact I'm playing against Nadal and playing in the finals fighting for the trophy is already a huge motivation and responsibility to perform my best.

"I didn't have any letdowns the whole match."

'The best performance of the tournament came in the right moment on Sunday against the biggest rival' -- Novak Djokovic

The victory gives Djokovic the difficult back-to-back Masters 1000 titles sweep at Indian Wells and Miami (2011) as he became just the second player to pull off the feat twice, joining Roger Federer (2005-06).

It certainly didn't hurt that Djokovic, 26, had three days off to prepare for Nadal, 27, after Black Friday's wipeout of both men's semifinal matches, while his opponent had two.

Nadal's best chance to break Djokovic, who won 83 percent of his first serves compared to his opponent's 58 percent, came in the opening game. But one of the Spaniard's 20 uncharacteristic unforced errors found the net, and Nadal never sniffed a break point the rest of the way.

"I had the break point and played a few games the right way with the right intensity but for the rest, it's easy to analyze. The opponent was better than me. That's the sport," said Nadal, who has a record-leading 26 Masters titles but none in Miami where he's a four-time runner-up.

"He was able to find the right spot, the right position that was able to put me in a negative position. He played great... He has a better return than mine, he has a better serve on this surface, especially."

Everything Nadal tried was thwarted and topped by Djokovic, who in tennis terms, was in the zone. Djokovic's pinpoint placements with his groundstrokes and cleverly timed forays to the net (9-of-10) neutralized Nadal's sizzling, inside-out forehand (9 winners off it with 10 errors) as well as sap his indomitable fighting spirit.

Nadal, never an excuse-maker, said his balky back that led to his defeat in the Australian Open finals in January was not a factor for his meagre 117-mph serves or for his diminished mobility.

Don't believe him.

The early turning point of the match came with Nadal serving at 2-3 as Djokovic crushed a backhand, cross-court winner and warp-speed forehand off the baseline to set up a break point that ended with one of Nadal's six backhand errors. On Djokovic's second set point, his 170 kilometres per hour slice serve practically sent Nadal into the photographer's pit.

Another backhand winner gave Djokovic a quick break in the second set and although the mostly Latin American crowd tried to lift Nadal with chants of, "Ra-fa, Ra-fa," Djokovic never let him get off the mat.

"I didn't want to lose focus for a second because I know Rafa is a kind of player that if you allow him will capitalize and come back to the match," said Djokovic, whose 43rd title, and 18th Masters title passes Agassi into second behind Nadal and Federer's 21. "I prepared myself very well and felt great on the court."

Finally, at 3-5, 15-40, the affable foes saved the best for last as a 30-stroke, all-court rally ended with a rat-a-tat exchange at net in which Djokovic caressed a half-volley into the open court to set off a Serbian salsa.

When Nadal was asked if he was glad Djokovic existed to be his rival, the gracious loser cracked:

"No," he laughed. "I like challenges, but I'm not stupid."

Djokovic, who earned $787,000 and 1,000 ranking points to Nadal's $384,065 payday and 600 points, disagreed and said he enjoys the rivalry challenge.

"The big challenges in my career changed me in a positive way as a player," Djokovic said. "Because of Rafa and Roger (Federer)... I worked hard and it paid dividends."

-- Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 31, 2014 C8

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