Rafael Nadal - Mutua Madrilena Madrid Open - Day Eight

Far from a foregone conclusion at times on Saturday, an encore of the championship matches in Indian Wells and Miami will oppose a 33-match winning streak and a 37-match clay winning streak.  From Nadal’s perspective, of course, “encore” serves as a singularly poor word to describe the events that he hopes will unfold.  After winning the first set in each of their North American finals, the Spaniard uncharacteristically squandered leads on both occasions as the world #2 outhit and outmaneuvered the world #1 at the key turning points in those matches.  Most impressive was the apparent fitness edge that the Serb enjoyed in their Miami final, when he looked the less fatigued of the two in the climactic tiebreak.  Yet Rafa has dominated Novak on clay and grass, maintaining a perfect record highlighted by their semifinal clash in Madrid two years ago.  In that riveting four-hour duel, Djokovic delivered a performance that he considered (rightfully) among the finest of his career but still fell one point short of victory.  Can he win one more point this time to preserve his impeccable 2011 record?

With the momentum of their mini-rivalry squarely in his corner, Djokovic should approach this final as confidently as he has approached any of his collisions with Nadal.  Unlikely to become complacent, though, he recognizes the towering task that confronts him and likely will follow Federer’s example in attacking Nadal relentlessly from the baseline, striking the ball early and redirecting it often.  Outside his winning streak, Djokovic probably has less at stake in this match than the world #1 whom he aims to supplant.  Overshadowed by the Serb on the hard court, Rafa cannot cede this clay citadel without amplifying the murmurs of Djokovic’s ascendancy and elevating the pressure that accompanies him at Roland Garros.  If Djokovic can capture his sixth title of his season, he would move a significant step closer to the top ranking while establishing himself as a serious challenger to Nadal’s reign in Paris, although the Spaniard certainly would remain the favorite.  If Rafa can halt Novak’s momentum, by contrast, he would reassert his supremacy as the world #1 and launch himself into the crucial coming weeks with confidence secure.  In a rivalry that likely will define the early stages of this decade, the ATP top two may divide the world into surfaces just as the former top two once did.  With Djokovic aiming to control the hard courts and Nadal the remaining surface, any triumph on the other’s territory resonates with especial force.

Not only a sequel to their thunderous 2009 classic, the 2011 Madrid final offers a plausible preview of the Roland Garros final, albeit on a markedly different surface with markedly different conditions.  Few sequels rise to the level of the original that inspired them, and this match should prove no exception; neither Nadal nor Djokovic has unleashed their most scintillating tennis this week.  (Also, how does one trump a 20-point final-set tiebreak for suspense?)  But that epic two years ago drained both of its combatants, both of whom fell before the quarterfinals in Paris.  This year, perhaps a less magical encounter will serve as an appetizer rather than a feast of Lucullan proportions, setting the stage for what lies ahead rather than resulting in a premature climax.

Victoria Azarenka - Mutua Madrilena Madrid Open - Day Eight

Whereas Nadal and Djokovic will contest their 26th meeting, the WTA finalists will clash for just the fourth time.  Like the Serb, Azarenka mastered the task of defusing an unseeded semifinalist armed with blazing first-strike power and an impressive degree of self-belief.  From her relatively routine triumph shone the Belarussian’s own confidence, undimmed by the intimidating forehands and return winners that Goerges thumped throughout the first several games.  Weathering the early storm with a champion’s aplomb, Azarenka merely honed her focus and scored the pivotal break after trailing 40-0 on her opponent’s serve.  Once she asserted control, moreover, she imposed a linear narrative of increasing dominance upon a match that many had expected to drip with drama.  The new world #4 displayed encouraging tactical acuity when she organized rallies around backhands to pit her greatest weapon against the German’s weaker wing, but she did not hesitate to attack the forehand when she saw an opening or to approach the forecourt upon the first mid-court ball.  In clear contention for the Roland Garros crown is an Azarenka who can muster that level of composure, always the chink in her armor.

Stifled by Kvitova at Wimbledon last year during an arid, injury-blighted spring, Vika hopes to recapture her two earlier successes against the Czech.  Winning four of her five matches against the top 10 this year, including two this week, the Wimbledon semifinalist has announced herself in commanding fashion as an all-surface threat.  Against one of the WTA’s most sparkling returners, Kvitova must seek to control of points immediately with her serve.  Her own return constitutes a formidable weapon as well, subjecting Azarenka’s less imposing delivery to consistent pressure.  Both of these brash blondes contest their third finals of the season, and both won their previous two, so neither should shrink from the opportunity before them.  Aiming for a sweep of the singles and doubles titles, Azarenka has a somewhat fiercer appetite and somewhat more developed game, so she enters as the slight favorite to win a second straight Premier Mandatory title.

The preparatory events to Roland Garros proved a poisoned chalice for their 2010 WTA champions, neither of whom could sustain anything approaching their excellence there.  Nevertheless, the 21-year-old who drinks from that cup this year should not suffer the same fate but instead continue to climb upwards through the ranks of contenders, battling over their sport’s most prestigious prizes.