KEY BISCAYNE, FLORIDA – Novak Djokovic stretched like a rubber band to hit a backhand. He sprinted into the other corner and scooped out forehands as if he was wielding a shovel. He ran forward to slice a ball off his shoetops. And he flicked a difficult half-volley past a weary Rafael Nadal for a winner.
That was just on the last point.
With superior attack and defense, Djokovic earned his fourth Key Biscayne title, while Nadal failed again trying for his first. Djokovic took charge midway through the first set Sunday and closed out the victory by winning a remarkable exchange to beat Nadal 6-3, 6-3 in the final of the Sony Open.
“This tournament has been perfect from the beginning to the end,” Djokovic said. “The matches that I have played I played really well, and I elevated my game as the tournament progressed. The best performance of the tournament came in the right moment on Sunday, against the biggest rival.”
Nadal fell to 0-4 in finals at Key Biscayne, one of just three ATP Masters 1000 events he has yet to win.
“No frustration. That’s tennis,” he said. “I tried everything. I tried my best. It was not enough. The opponent was just better than me, and when the opponent is better, he’s better.”
As for Djokovic, only six-time champion Andre Agassi has won the men’s event more.
Djokovic erased the only break point he faced, committed just 15 unforced errors and won a scrambling, 30-shot rally on the final point with a series of improbable saves. He then dropped his racket, threw up his arms and collapsed on his back as the crowd roared.
He completed a March sweep after beating Roger Federer in the final at Indian Wells two weeks ago. Even so, Nadal will remain ranked No. 1 and Djokovic No. 2.
Either Nadal or Djokovic is the reigning champion in all nine Masters 1000 tournaments.
Afterward, Nadal was asked if he was glad to have Djokovic as a rival.
“No,” Nadal said with a smile. “I like challenges, but I am not stupid.”
Djokovic had a different take on the rivalry, and credited Nadal and Federer for helping him to become a six-time Grand Slam champion.
“Because of Rafa and because of Roger, I am what I am today,” Djokovic said. “All the big matches I lost to these guys, not winning the big matches, they made me understand what I need to do on the court.”
Nadal and Djokovic have played 40 matches, the most of any men’s pairing in the Open era, and few have been so lopsided.
“I didn’t have any letdowns throughout the whole match,” Djokovic said. “I was in a very high level — serve, backhand, crosscourt, forehand. I have done everything right, and I’m thrilled with my performance.”
Nadal stood almost two meters behind the baseline to return and often remained on the defensive from there, with his shots lacking their normal depth. Djokovic was quick to step into the court and even won a point playing serve and volley.
Chasing down shots Nadal usually counts as winners, Djokovic won the majority of long rallies. Serving well, Djokovic also won most of the short points.
Nadal said he felt fine physically, and his problem was Djokovic.
“He was having too much success with every shot,” Nadal said.
Nadal’s lone break-point chance came in the opening game, and he failed to convert. Djokovic broke in the sixth game, hitting three consecutive winners before Nadal put a backhand in the net.
Djokovic broke again in the opening game of the second set by winning a 22-shot exchange, and he held serve the rest of the way.
“I did not want to lose focus for a second,” Djokovic said, “because I knew that Rafa is a kind of a player that if you allow him, if you give him a chance, he’s going to capitalize.”
The clay-court season looms, and the result might be different when the rivalry resumes on Nadal’s favorite surface. He still leads the series, 22-18.