The more Rafael Nadal plays on clay, the more he looks to be unbeatable this season. Claiming his sixth Barcelona title over the weekend, even Nadal observed that his level of play had improved since the previous week, when he had earned his record seventh consecutive title in Monte Carlo. But as the tennis world bows to the unstoppable clay-court king, world No. 2 Novak Djokovic is confident that he can end the Spaniard's reign.
"I am playing with a lot more confidence against him these days," Djokovic told reporters today at the Serbia Open. He did not downplay Nadal's mastery on clay, however, acknowledging that defeating the world No. 1 would be exceptionally difficult.
"I now believe I can beat anyone on any surface, although beating Nadal on clay remains a big task and the biggest challenge of all," he said. "Down the years, as Nadal kept ripping apart everything in front of him on red clay, we always thought there was no room left for improvement in his game and he kept surprising us. He is still the player to beat [on clay] and the favorite in each of the upcoming events, including the French Open, because he is so dominant on this surface."
Djokovic added that his newfound confidence and consistency against top players such as Nadal and Federer have been key improvements in his game.
"I feel more confident and more consistent because I am capable of holding my own against the world's best players under any circumstances. That wasn't the case earlier [in my career] … whenever I needed to be consistent against Federer and Nadal in the latter stages of Grand Slam events, I was unable to stay psychologically balanced and confident."
Djokovic, who has a bye into the second round of the Serbia Open, has not competed since his three-set victory over Nadal in Miami last month.
"I needed the extra two weeks of rest to recover from a grueling hard-court season, a surface which is not very pleasant for knees and tendons, but I am ready now," he said.
On Wednesday, the top seed will compete against the winner of the match between Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo of Spain and qualifier Adrian Ungur of Romania.
Many have pointed to the undefeated Serbian superstar as Nadal's greatest competition this year, although he has yet to beat Nadal on clay and Nadal leads their career match-ups, 16-9.
Nevertheless, the improvements to Djokovic's game this year have been undeniable, and his confident attitude is heartening for those who wish to see Nadal face a true challenge on clay this season.
Do you believe in Djokovic? What must he do to beat Nadal?