x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Djokovic's challenge for world No 1 serious this time

Novak Djokovic has had a fine 2011 so far and his success has seen him take back the No 2 ranking spot from Roger Federer. And unlike in the past, his form is a threat to Rafael Nadal.

Serbia's Novak Djokovic is playing the best tennis of his life and is a serious threat to Rafael Nadal's No 1 spot. Gabriel Bouys / AFP
Serbia's Novak Djokovic is playing the best tennis of his life and is a serious threat to Rafael Nadal's No 1 spot. Gabriel Bouys / AFP

Novak Djokovic has been here before, knocking the bipolar world of men's tennis off its Rafa-Roger axis. You may be excused, however, for wondering if his latest overturning of the Big Two's applecart may be rather more permanent.

Djokovic improved his 2011 record to 18-0 by winning the PNB Paribas Open, a streak that includes three victories over Roger Federer and Sunday's clinical dissection of Rafael Nadal, the world No 1, in the Indian Wells final.

Djokovic not only vaulted Federer into No 2 in the rankings while in the California desert, he defeated the Swiss and the Spaniard in the same tournament for the first time since 2007.

Whether Djokovic, the 23-year-old Serb, is on his way to inaugurating a new Big Two, or even priming himself for a one-man stand at the top, now seem topics worthy of discussion, unlike his surge of a year ago, when he moved ahead of Federer only to be beaten back down.

He certainly seems to have solved the Swiss, whose dark warnings of "don't count me out" seem increasingly desperate as he approaches his 30th birthday. The "big three-oh" may be "the new 20" in many endeavours but it remains the same threshold of imminent irrelevance in the tennis world.

If Djokovic has found a way to unlock Nadal's game (and he has beaten the Spaniard four times in their past six meetings), we could see a new man at the top of the world before the year is out.

At Indian Wells, Bill Dwyre of the Los Angeles Times, one of the most insightful tennis writers in the world, noticed that Djokovic - nicknamed 'Djoker' for his antics - neutralised Nadal by hammering at his backhand, especially when serving from the deuce court.

The left-handed Nadal has a powerful two-handed backhand, but gripping the racket with both fists also limits his range, Dwyre noted, and Djokovic took advantage by putting ball after ball at the limits of Nadal's reach to his right, prompting numerous soft returns during a 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 victory.

Nadal is only 24, and less likely to fade away soon, although his heavy musculature may augur a future of strains and tears. At the least, by carefully limiting his schedule the Spaniard should be able to remain in the "who is No 1?" discussion for years to come.

That conversation now may include Djokovic ahead of Federer. The Serb concedes he is playing the best tennis of his life, and he has the 2011 results to prove it, including his second grand slam title, at the Australian Open.

"I am playing with a lot of confidence," he said after defeating Nadal. "I'm feeling the ball well on the court. I'm very dedicated. I have a big will to win each match. I want to keep on going and keep on playing good tennis."