Novak Djokovic Rafael Nadal of Spain congratulates Novak Djokovic of Serbia after their match during the final of the BNP Paribas Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden on March 20, 2011 in Indian Wells, California.

Twice a runner-up in Miami, the all-time leader in Masters Series shields now eyes a third opportunity to add this coveted crown to his collection.  Across the net looms an opponent who seeks to not only complete the elusive Indian Wells-Miami double but also become the first player in ATP history to reach the clay season undefeated.  Moreover, Djokovic almost certainly would break Lendl’s record for a single-season winning streak should he win his second Key Biscayne title.  The stakes thus stand higher for him than for the world #1, although Nadal surely would not relish the prospect of consecutive losses to the same rival at these prestigious North American tournaments.

Central to the outcome of their Indian Wells final was the mysterious collapse of the Spaniard’s serve, without which he cannot overcome an opponent of Djokovic’s talent.  Until that shot disintegrated so miserably, Nadal dominated the majority of the extended rallies and looked likely to record a routine straight-sets victory.  But the Serb played a substantial role in whiplash-like reversal of fortunes, staying mentally resilient deep into the second set and shrugging off several potentially deflating errors as he served for it.  Under scant pressure in the third set, he marched majestically toward the winner’s podium as his fabled foe failed to collect himself.  For the first time in his career, Djokovic won a final and rallied from a one-set deficit against Nadal, accomplishments that will combine with his 8-5 hard-court record against the Spaniard to infuse him with additional confidence in his pursuit of history on Sunday.  Impeccable in sets during this tournament, the new #2 has lost no more than six games in any of his matches and just 18 total games en route to the final.  Never even pushed to 5-5 in a set, the Serb jestingly considered a 6-4, 6-2 victory over Kevin Anderson a difficult match.  And so it was by his recent standards, which raises the question of whether he will have sufficient preparation for an opponent far more dangerous than his previous prey.  Djokovic’s often farcically smooth progress through the Miami draw may have preserved his energy for the final but also has not forced him to leave his comfort zone or elevate his focus.  When Rafa offers much sterner resistance, as he surely will, we will discover whether an airplane that impresses at cruising altitude can weather a burst of turbulence.  Should he maneuver himself into position to win, furthermore, will the burden of achieving the double and the other records weigh heavily upon his shoulders?

While Rafa reinvigorated his serve earlier in this tournament, one wonders whether his memories from the desert will inject tension into that crucial stroke when he faces the same opponent in another final.  Whenever the world #1 wandered into perilous territory here, however, his serve swooped to the rescue less with outright aces than with well-placed, penetrating balls that allowed him to seize command early in the rally.  Expressing greater satisfaction with his game than at the previous tournament, the world #1 has lost his serve only once through five matches (admittedly once more often than Djokovic has lost his serve).  Unlike his tranquil route through the Indian Wells draw and his opponent’s route here, Nadal has traced a dangerous path past a more resilient series of opponents and advances to the final after a pair of triumphs over top-10 rivals.  After an uneven three-setter against Berdych, he soared to his most emphatic victory over Federer on a surface other the clay.  Nevertheless, Rafa now faces the unusual situation of following that triumph with another before the title.  Not in that situation since Roland Garros 2005, Nadal must guard against peaking too soon and forgetting that the Hydra still has another head.  Considering his unparalleled focus and self-motivating powers, however, he should approach that challenge with aplomb.  Nor will the disillusionments of Miami finals lost in 2005 (to Federer) and 2008 (to Davydenko) likely return to haunt him.  A player who lives firmly in the moment, the world #1 should approach his Sunday opponent with a clear mind, aided by the familiarity that their frequent meetings have provided.

Clashing more frequently than Federer and Nadal, the ATP top two have engineered a rivalry currently more scintillating than its predecessor.  Separating them from their peers, in our view, is their ability to transition from defense to offense in the most improbable positions.  Gifted with sensational movement and counterpunching skills, they can strike penetrating shots even when thrust onto defense well behind the baseline.  Once they reverse the momentum in a rally, they rarely allow opponents to regain the initiative but instead can finish points with any shot, ranging from delicate drop shots to inside-out forehand blasts.  Therefore, one often prefers watching the return games of both Novak and Rafa rather than their service games, when they generally open exchanges on offense and pursue them to an inevitable conclusion.  Against each other, though, the fearsome combination of movement, power, and reflexes results in thunderous rallies during which several shots that would have defeated an ordinary opponent barely alter the balance of power in rallies.  Should Nadal and Djokovic deliver a performance worthy of their previous collisions, tennis fans may begin to ask themselves a question unthinkable a few years ago.  Might a new rivalry ultimately transcend in drama and spine-tingling shot-making the greatest rivalry in sports?

Rafael Nadal (L-R) Novak Djokovic of Serbia poses with Rafael Nadal prior to playing their men's singles final match during day fifteen of the 2010 U.S. Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 13, 2010 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.

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