Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic of Serbia (L) shakes hands with Rafael Nadal of Spain after winning his final round Gentlemen's match on Day Thirteen of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on July 3, 2011 in London, England.

A day after Stosur ambushed the heavily favored Serena Williams, the men’s defending champion hopes to spring a sequel to that surprise upon world #1 Djokovic, who has won 63 of his 65 matches this year.  Under normal circumstances, a title defense for this 10-time major champion would seem anything but surprising, but 2011 has witnessed a series of five consecutive losses to the Serb in finals on every surface.  Culminating in the Wimbledon title that accompanied his rise to the top ranking, Novak has won nine of his last ten sets from Rafa as the latter’s empire shrank to the clay bastions of Monte Carlo and Roland Garros.  After he rebounded from one-set deficits in finals at Indian Wells and Miami, Djokovic jerked the balance of power further in his direction by straight-setting the Spaniard twice on his beloved terre battue before that emphatic victory at the All England Club.  Never before has Nadal looked so thoroughly uneasy against an opponent, missing routine shots during critical stages in their matches.  On the last five occasions when he served to stay in a set or match against Djokovic, he has failed in the attempt.  Asked after Wimbledon what he planned to change in his strategy, however, the dethroned #1 sounded determined to conquer this greatest challenge of his career, even as he acknowledged wearily that he might need several months to develop his riposte to the blows that he has absorbed.

On Saturday, Nadal struck a brighter note in his post-match interview when he recalled his four-set victory over the Serb on this court in last year’s final and asserted that he knew how to repeat that outcome.  Tactical confusion had hampered his efforts against Djokovic in their last few meetings, so greater clarity in that regard would help the Spaniard emerge from a swamp of self-doubts similar to the quagmire into which he plunged Federer.  Early in the Wimbledon final, Rafa gained success by hammering forehands down the line into Djokovic’s forehand, a stroke more technically vulnerable than his backhand despite its power.  Since his looping cross-court forehands flew into the teeth of the Serb’s explosive two-hander, he should engage less frequently in that type of rally, which ended more often than not in his rival redirecting a shallow groundstroke with a backhand down the line.  The lower-percentage strategy of striking forehands and backhand down the line requires greater confidence, perhaps something that Nadal has acquired from his uplifting victories over Roddick and Murray.  Expecting the Spaniard’s high-percentage, high-bouncing forehand directed into their backhands, the two Andys repeatedly froze unprepared when the defending champion instead flattened out that shot and deployed it more aggressively.  During most of those last two matches, moreover, Nadal served with greater authority than he had in the first week.  Outside a third-set lull against Murray, the stroke that won him the 2010 US Open played a key role in extracting him from early deficits in service games.  Somewhat less impressive was Nadal’s backhand, which has proved no match for Djokovic’s forehand in cross-court rallies this year.  Although his two-hander improved as the semifinal progressed, the defending champion resorted too often to the sort of neutral shot unlikely to trouble the Serb, who will not donate many errors merely from a change of pace or spin.

Fortunate to forestall Federer in a classic semifinal, Djokovic owes his berth in the final to a stunning return-of-serve winner on match point that illustrated his talent this year for summoning the sublime when suspense soars highest.  Central to the world #1’s ascendancy is that return of serve, constantly subjecting opponents to the pressure created by the inability to win free points.  In order to keep Djokovic off balance on his returns, Nadal will want to vary the placement of his serve, but both of these players will rely less upon that shot than upon their groundstrokes.  Determined to win the battle of court positioning, the world #1 will step inside the baseline whenever possible Not quite at its spectacular best throughout the tournament, Djokovic’s forehand broke down at a potentially decisive moment late in the fifth set against Federer, as did the serve that had looked revitalized for most of 2011.  Although he escaped that lapse by the narrowest of margins, the Serb surely will want to avoid a similarly dire situation against an opponent less likely to let a late-match lead evaporate.  In the first major title that he won this season, Djokovic thundered through the draw with the invulnerability of a tank, losing no sets at all in the second week of the Australian Open.  Not an inexorable juggernaut at Wimbledon, he dropped sets to four different foes—including Baghdatis and Tomic—before arriving at the same destination and delivering his finest performance of the fortnight in the final.  In fact, Djokovic won none of his record-setting five Masters 1000 crowns this year without losing a set, while ten of his victories came in final sets.  As these numbers suggest, his undisputed dominance has emerged in part from his greatly improved resilience in adversity, a dimension that formerly separated him from the rival whom he has surpassed.  Both physically and mentally drained from an eerily identical victory over Federer in last year’s semifinal, he should recover more fully than he did a year ago.

In a testament to the rigidity of the ATP hierarchy, Nadal and Djokovic have occupied six of the eight finalist berths at the calendar’s four most important tournaments.  Just a year after the former won three majors in a single year, moreover, the latter now hopes to duplicate that feat against the only other player to win a Slam this season.  After tomorrow, the top two will have combined to win seven consecutive majors in a dual stranglehold that has succeeded the Federer-Nadal era.  When this Slam season began, the conversation circled around the possibility of a Rafa Slam.  When it ends, will the discussion have shifted to the possibility of a Novak Slam?  Or will the “Novak-Novak-Novak-Novak era” envisioned by Dijana Djokovic resemble a “Novak-Rafa-Novak-Rafa era?”

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