World No.1 in waiting?

April 6, 2011 - 0:0

Next week on the French Riviera, the clay of the Monte Carlo Country Club is going to be smeared all over at least one man's long-running winning streak.

While Rafael Nadal has been the champion in Monaco for the last six Aprils - since Prince Albert has ruled over the haves and the have-yachts in the tax haven, no one but the Majorcan has held the trophy - Novak Djokovic is undefeated in 24 matches this year, which is the sweetest start anyone has had to a season since Ivan Lendl opened 1986 by winning his first 25 appearances.
Nadal and Djokovic's unbeaten sequences cannot both survive the week, and do not assume that it is bound to be the Serbian's streak that is going to crash and burn at the prettiest place in tennis, on the terracotta courts between the limestone cliffs and the shimmering Mediterranean.
On the hard courts of the Australian Open, of Dubai, of the Indian Wells Tennis Garden in California and Miami's Crandon Park, Djokovic has been playing some spectacular tennis, and a few have already taken to describing him as the best player never to have held the No 1 ranking.
Of all his performances this season, the one he should take greatest encouragement from is coming from a set down in the unforgiving Miami heat on Sunday afternoon to beat Nadal in a decisive tiebreak.
If Djokovic did not notice it at the time, you can be sure that someone has told him there were at least a couple of occasions towards the end of the final, which lasted for three hours and 21 minutes, when Nadal was bent double. Djokovic, the player who is supposed to struggle in hot weather, had Nadal's lungs and legs screaming: ""No more, no more.""
It is Andy Murray's misfortune, though he talks of enjoying the challenge, to be sharing an era with arguably the two greatest players of all time. If only, though, Nadal and Roger Federer were all Murray had to contend with on the tour and at the slams.
For years, Djokovic has been considered The Third Man of men's tennis, the outsider looking in on Nadal and Federer's rivalry. Now he patently deserves to be in the top two, and perhaps - repeat, perhaps - this year he will find himself at top of the tennis tree.
He already has four titles this season to Nadal's none, as the Spaniard has not won anything since last October's Tokyo tournament.
That period without a title is going to end very soon for Nadal, even if he does not win the trophy on the Riviera for a seventh successive year, as the next couple of months on the clay are when he is at his most potent.
From the tennis that was played in Miami, you would have to say that Federer is going to be outside the top two for a while, and that Murray does not deserve to move up a place to fourth, a consequence of Robin Soderling's failure to defend a stack of points from last year's Miami tournament.
John McEnroe is the only man to have ever had a better start to the year than Lendl and Djokovic, having in 1984 won his first 39 matches.
For some observers, it is now a matter of when and not if the computer recognises Djokovic as the alpha male of tennis, so perhaps it is time to look up 'premature' in a Serbian-English dictionary.
It was Federer who observed the other day that tennis is a ""fast-moving sport"", and he was not talking about footwork or racket speed.
It should not be so easily forgotten that it was little more than two months ago that everyone was wondering whether Nadal would become the first player since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all four slam titles simultaneously.
If Nadal had not been injured in his quarter-final, and if he had gone on to win the Australian Open, it would have been the greatest accomplishment in the history of the sport.
And it should also be noted that Djokovic's appearances in slam finals have all been on hard courts; he has plenty to prove on the clay of Roland Garros and on the Wimbledon greensward.
It remains unlikely that Djokovic is going to consistently get the better of Nadal during the clay-court swing. Nadal still holds three of the four grand slam titles.
Plus, since he hardly had an off-season because of the Davis Cup final, it has to be imagined that he is going to get tired soon.
That said, he has never felt so self-assured between the tramlines. The self-belief and self-knowledge he gained on American hard courts, where he showed himself that he could twice come back from a set down to beat Nadal in finals, will do him no harm on the scorched earth of Monte Carlo, and then beyond.
(Source: Telegraph)
Caption: Happy days: Novak Djokovic celebrates after defeating Rafael Nadal during the men's final at the Sony Ericsson Open Photo: GETTY IMAGES