A Power Shift
Rafael Nadal is still No. 1 in the world. But most in the tennis industry would concede he is not the best player on the planet right now.
That honor would go to Novak Djokovic of Serbia, who did what is nearly undoable, and that is beat Nadal on clay, and in his home country, at the Madrid Open final on Sunday.
Nadal had won 37 straight matches on clay going into the match, while Djokovic had won 31 consecutive matches to open the 2011. Something had to give, and it was, surprisingly, Nadal, in the two-set match that featured long, heavy rallies and brilliant shot making from both. When it matter, Djokovic was able to use his two-handed backhand to hit clutch winners, something most players can't do on clay against Nadal because of his heavy spin and brilliant defensive abilities.
The 7-5, 6-4 final, Djokovic's third straight big tournament win over Nadal this season, sets up a spectacular seven weeks of tennis coming up. It will start with the French Open in Paris beginning May 22, and by the end of June will switch to grass for the granddaddy of 'em all, Wimbledon.
Djokovic will be favoured for both, but Nadal will be looking to claim his sixth title at Roland Garros in the past seven years and Federer, who played Nadal very tough in the Madrid semifinals, will be determined to reclaim the Wimbledon championship he used to own.
Canada will have a dog in both fights, with Milos Raonic up to 25th in the world after doing what most North Americans avoid, and that's stick his nose into the middle of the clay court season in Europe. But it will be on grass that Raonic may really have an opportunity to make his mark, a surface that should complement his enormous serve - he leads the ATP in aces - if he has the maturity required to play in the world's most important tennis tournament.
On Sunday in Rome at the Italian Open, Raonic lost his opening round match 6-4, 6-4 to Fernando Verdasco, who Raonic beat twice on hard courts earlier this season but also lost to in Madrid last week. Still, the 20-year-old Raonic is 9-5 on clay heading into Paris, not bad at all.
Nadal, meanwhile, will still be No. 1 for a while yet, but even he seemed to concede that Djokovic will have his paws on that distinction soon.
"The No. 1 ranking is not in danger -- it's finished. Let's not lie to ourselves, that's the reality," Nadal said after losing to Djokovic.