STILL UNBEATEN, SERBIAN HERO DJOKOVIC BEATS NO. 1 NADAL AGAIN

Vera Zonareva and Bud on the Stage

Vera Zonareva and Bud on the Stage

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. – It was tennis atmosphere at its best.  Even the palm trees of Crandon Park seemed to be clapping their fronds as two brilliant shotmakers dashed and bashed for almost 3 ½ hours on their stage, a blueberry-toned asphalt court.

Rafa Nadal came to this beach town as No. 1, and looked it in crushing Roger Federer in the semis, 6-3, 6-2. But the guy who glowed with a No. 1 sheen in Sunday’s heated Sony Ericsson Open title showdown wasn’t Nadal this time.  It was the Serbian who had fallen to Nadal in the last US Open final – the scrappy Novak Djokovic.  Although Novak was 2 points from defeat in the wild third set (15-30 and 30-all), he hung on to force a conclusive tie-breaker, and was overpowering at the end, 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (7-4).

“I’m having the four weeks of my life,” beamed the dark-haired Novak, unbeaten in 2011 (24-0), and holder of four titles,, including the Australian.  “I really can’t believe it, but I love it.”

Does this mean that the 23-year-old Djokovic, No, 2, who beat Federer at the US Open, is going to take over?  Maybe one day.

“It’s possible if he keeps winning and I don’t,”said Nadal, on a rare streak himself – losing two straight finals over a three week stretch.

“But it’s hard to imagine Nadal fading away when his clay-loving feet are planted shortly on European soil.

Band entertaining before ladies' final

Band entertaining before ladies’ final

But it was a bad day for Rafa as they roared down the stretch.  He doesn’t lose tense struggles, but his sliced backhand was short, along with other strokes, and he missed a lot of shots that are usually paella for him.  His 6th double fault, putting Novak ahead 3-2 and with serve in the breaker cooked the Spaniard.  “I was a little nervous at the end – double faults. We slowed down a little.  It was really hot.”

But remember this about Rafa.  He lost a month of preparation to illness and the leg injury that probably cost him the Australian title.  He’ll just work harder.  This one was closer than his Indian Wells title loss to Djokovic.

As they raced to the finish line, hanging on each other’s backs, the full-house crowd of 14,625 were with them every scream on the way.  But it was an orderly audience, going crazy for their man as a point ended, alternating with silence as it was played.  Interestingly, Novak has inspired a lot of Serbians to fall for tennis, and there were hundreds cheering for him. Using his nickname Nole (pronounced NO-lay), they flapped Serbian flags and often applauded standing, having a marvelous time in saluting the man who won the Davis Cup for their homeland.  Curiously, Nadal didn’t get as much support in this largely Spanish speaking precinct.

Bud and new friend, Alex Montague

Bud and new friend, Alex Montague

Fortunately for those with sensitive ears, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka won’t often meet on the same court.  It happened in the final, though, won by No. 6 (moved up two points) Azarenka, 6-1, 6-4. Good to see Maria back in tennis form after injuries and illness, rising to No. 9 (from 13).  But it was a double dose of their shrieakathons.  They remind me of the great painting by Edvard Munch: “The Scream.”

Very stylish and attractive they are, but their “Ululating” in several penetrating tones is distracting and unnecessary.  Maybe the WTA (Women’s Tennis Assn) could supply them with Ralph Lauren pacifiers.

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