For most of 2013, Rafael Nadal has dominated the ATP Tour. He's won two Grand Slams and 10 titles in total and is an astonishing 65-3 on the year, shooting to the No. 1 ranking in the world by reaching the China Open final.
Which is precisely why Novak Djokovic's victory over Nadal in that final was so vital for the Serbian superstar.
Behind a strong serve, Djokovic was able to handle Nadal on Sunday, 6-3, 6-4, never facing a break point. Despite the victory coming at a non-Grand Slam event, it was an important win in the rivalry between these two excellent players, as Nadal had won the past three meetings and six of the last seven.
Nadal leads the all-time series, 22-16.
Over the past three seasons, this rivalry has fluctuated, with each player gaining control for prolonged periods of time. Djokovic dominated through 2011 and started strong in 2012, winning seven straight against Rafael Nadal, including three straight victories in Grand Slam finals ending in his 2012 Australian Open win.
But Nadal seized control of the rivalry once more in the clay portion of the 2012 schedule and ran that dominance all the way through into 2013, with his victory over Djokovic in the U.S. Open final.
Sometimes, all it takes to swing the momentum of a rivalry back in the opposite direction is one win, even at one of the final tournaments of the year. Surely, Djokovic will remember exactly how he approached this match with Nadal for future meetings.
Djokovic admitted how important the win was, telling BBC Sport:
I really wanted to get my hands on the trophy and win against Nadal, who has been the best player so far in 2013. It's very important for my confidence and it's very important mentally and emotionally for me.
I managed to stay tough and not drop my concentration, which I think [happened] in both Montreal and at the US Open in the important moments. I've learnt my lesson from a few very tough and close matches that I lost against Rafa on hard courts, especially the last one in the US Open final.
Tennis these days has three tiers of players. Tier 1 includes the perpetual champions in Nadal and Djokovic. Tier 2 is Andy Murray, who has been wonderful in the past two years but seems to be the tiniest step behind the top two players.
And Tier 3 consists of everyone else, including Roger Federer.
Even on a day when Nadal was guaranteed to go back atop the rankings, Djokovic did what he set out for against his Spanish counterpart—seize back some of the momentum in their head-to-head matchup that Nadal had recently controlled.
It may not be a Grand Slam title, but heading toward the end of this season and looking forward to the next, it could have been just the win Djokovic needed to fuel his efforts to reclaim the world's No. 1 ranking.
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