The shots kept screaming past Rafael Nadal and landing in deserted patches of court.
At first, Nadal studied the balls bouncing out of his reach. Then he looked at them with disdain. Finally, as the match became a foregone conclusion, he regarded the balls with regret, as if he was back home in Mallorca, fishing in the sea, and they were the ones that got away.
Nadal came up empty at the Sony Open championship, again. Novak Djokovic never gave him a chance.
Playing precision tennis, Djokovic angled winners that reduced Nadal to a spectator in a 6-3, 6-3 victory Sunday that required just 83 minutes of his time and barely raised a sweat on his skin.
Drama drained quickly from Stadium Court when it became apparent that Djokovic was having one of those electric finals where every shot sent a tingle through his body.
Djokovic, No. 2 in the world, defeated No. 1 Nadal by hitting 22 winners, converting three of four break points and saving the only break point he faced. He won his fourth Miami crown while Nadal fell to 0-4 in Sony finals.
“I didn’t have any letdowns, and I was at a very high level — serve, backhand, crosscourt, forehand,” Djokovic said. “I wanted to play each point 100 percent because I knew that I am in control of the rallies and I needed to stay that way.”
Had Nadal placed a thumbprint on the baseline, Djokovic could have nailed it, such was his vision on this sunny afternoon. It was akin to a hot LeBron James saying the basket appeared to be as wide as the ocean.
The better man
After Nadal failed to capitalize on a break point in the first game, he said the match flew away from him on Djokovic’s preferred hard-court surface.
“Easy to analyze — the opponent was better than me,” Nadal said. “Some matches are difficult to say. This one was not. He was better than me in everything.”
Most frustrating for Nadal was his inability to engage Djokovic in long rallies in which Nadal’s defense and power give him the upper hand.
The most protracted rally of the match was the last one. After Nadal moved in and failed to put a volley away, he batted Djokovic’s reply back, and Djokovic scooped it into empty territory. Nadal was left flat-footed, gazing helplessly at the winning shot as Djokovic reclined spread-eagled onto his back in joy and relief. He got up and jumped around with a huge smile of satisfaction in his face.
Djokovic can log the match in his diary as a flawless performance to be remembered long after he retires. Or the next time he faces Nadal, his favorite rival. They have played 40 times, with Nadal holding a 22-18 edge overall and Djokovic holding an 11-9 edge in finals, including the 2011 final here. They are the current two best among the Fab Four in this golden era of men’s tennis.
Asked whether he’s glad Djokovic exists because of the challenge he presents, Nadal didn’t hesitate.
“No,” he said, adding as he broke into laughter, “I like challenges but I am not stupid.”
Djokovic answered differently when asked about Nadal. Once known as a fragile player whose physical and mental breakdowns prevented him from achieving his potential, Djokovic today is a sinewy specimen with the tenacity, resourcefulness and endurance to solve problems during competition. On Sunday, he replenished his reservoir of confidence.
“Because of Rafa and Roger [Federer] I am what I am today,” he said. “When I reached No. 3 and won the first Grand Slam in 2008, the years after that I struggled to overcome the doubts that I had. Then they made me understand what I need to do on the court.
“I worked hard and it’s paying dividends, I guess, the last couple years. If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best.”
Djokovic beat Federer two weeks ago at the Indian Wells final. Now he will take aim at the clay court season and the Slam that’s eluded him, the French Open, where Nadal is undisputed king.
It will be tougher on the red dirt of Roland Garros, but at Crandon Park Djokovic was able to rip crosscourt shots that shoved Nadal to the corners and put him, as Nadal said, into “negative positions too early in the point.”
Djokovic repeatedly neutralized Nadal’s greatest asset, his mobility. Nadal usually chases balls down like a border collie on a wayward sheep. On Sunday, he seemed slow to react and didn’t get much traction with his feet. He insisted afterward that his previously balky back and knees were not the problem.
“I feel that I didn’t move as well as I do normally,” he said. Was he 100 percent healthy? “Yes, I am fine, thank you.”
At the one-hour mark, Nadal played an awkward game, losing four consecutive points on misreads of serve, errors and a Djokovic forehand he didn’t even attempt to pursue. He looked lost as he fell behind 3-1.
Nadal held on in the next game as fans wearing T-shirts and hats with his Nike bull logo yelled, “Vamos, Rafa!” and hoped for a break.
But Spain’s racket-wielding matador couldn’t mount a counterattack on Djokovic, who connected on 73 percent of his first serves. He went ahead 4-2 with another sharp backhand. He was up 5-3 after two consecutive aces. Nadal scored only one point as he was broken in the final game.
Anticipation for the final ramped up when both Djokovic and Nadal didn’t play their Friday semifinals after their opponents withdrew because of injury and illness.
Sunday’s showdown did not materialize in a rivalry that has many chapters to come. But Djokovic, the sublime Serb, was at the very summit of his game. A classic was played on one side of the net. That in itself was worth witnessing.