By Sandra Harwitt
Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic came to the expansive Western & Southern Open venue on Tuesday to hit a few balls, and say a few words, ahead of their opening matches at this year’s tournament on Wednesday.
The duo took time to speak to their view of the world of tennis, their tilt to the reality of the athletic world they live in.
Nadal arrived in Cincinnati straight off of his eighth tournament victory of the year at the ATP World Tour Masters 1000-Canada victory. One topic he was interested in discussing was the difference in his game this year compared to in 2011 in relation to matches against Novak Djokovic -- Nadal’s beaten Djokovic on two of three occasions this year, but lost to the world No. 1 all six times they played in 2011. Let’s just say the world No. 3 didn’t get caught up in forehands and backhands answering the question.
"The difference probably are one point, two points," he said. Then he got down to the reality response: "The sport, we can find a lot of things, a lot of explanations for everything, what’s going on, but my feeling is the sport is more simple. You are playing well. You are fresh mentally. You are ready to resist the pressure. You have more chances. If you are less ready for all of that things, you have much less chances. And 2011 for moments I was not ready to compete against Novak. He was ready to compete very, very well. For that reason, he was much better player than me in 2011."
Not surprisingly, Novak Djokovic also took the opportunity at the Western & Southern Open on Tuesday to address the distinction between their matches played in 2011 and this year. Here’s what the Serbian had to say: "He (Nadal) became more aggressive. That’s where I felt it. Especially on the return (in the semifinals last week) in Montreal, he was coming closer to the line and he was picking up the ball quite fast."
Another interesting subject Nadal had a take on was the suggestion that a player can map out a schedule designed for success. Basically, the Spaniard believes that notion is bogus.
"I will say in a sport like tennis, my feeling is everybody who says, ‘I find the perfect schedule,’ everybody’s lying," Nadal said. "Because in tennis, when you prepare your schedule, you don’t know if you will play one match, two, three, four, or five. You can lose in the first round, so the schedule is changing a lot."
Djokovic, who has ended the last two seasons as the top guy in the game, had his own thoughts on how he sets up his schedule for the year, but he certainly agrees with Nadal that it’s hard to predict how it’s going to go as tennis is a highly demanding sport.
"In the end of the day, it is the same (ATP World Tour) schedule for everybody," said Djokovic, in the hunt for his fourth title of the year this week. "You have to adjust to it. So I can’t really say if there is any perfect schedule, but my goal is -- as it was in the last few years -- always to kind of concentrate, to set up my best form for Grand Slams and Masters events, to be in top of my shape for those ones, and then, of course, play in smaller tournaments like Davis Cup and so forth."
Regardless of what these two tennis greats feel about their schedule or how they’re playing against each other we know one thing for sure: There’s is definitely a rivalry for the ages.
They have played 36 times already and Nadal holds a 21-15 lead in those meetings. Of those 36 matches, 10 were played at Grand Slam tournaments and 20 were played at ATP World Tournament Masters 1000 level events.
Without a doubt, their most amazing match played changed the record books -- they battled in the 2012 Australian Open final for a record five hours, 53 minutes before Djokovic finally nailed down the win 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 7-5 at close to 2:00 a.m. in the morning.
Whether Nadal and Djokovic will end up facing each other in the Western & Southern Open final on Sunday is not yet known. What is known is that neither one of these players have ever won the coveted Western & Southern Open title and would very much like to add the trophy to their collection. Djokovic has won the other eight ATP World Tour Masters 1000 titles at least once, and Nadal six of the nine thus far.
One thing that is certain is that Nadal and Djokovic will be two of the top players that fans will focus on throughout the week at the Lindner Family Tennis Center as well as around the world via television coverage.