Baseline Blasts: The Joker Rules Tennis’ Gotham City

The Joker knocked off both Batman and Robin this weekend.

Novak Djokovic proved he’s the top dog in Gotham City by beating both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal the way to the BNP Paribas title at Indians Wells, California. And what an impressive performance it was.

The Joker took care of Batman in three sets when Fed fell apart in the third, while the Serbian right-hander gave Robin a three-set thumping in the finals on Sunday. The fact that Djokovic took the third set against Rafa, 6-1, did little to dispel any notions that Novak is suddenly the best player in the world, at least on the hard courts.

I’ve got a feeling Joker has maybe two more Majors in his bag of tricks this year, Wimbledon with its fast courts and on the hard stuff at the U.S. Open. I even think he can win it all at the French Open simply because  he is the best defensive player in the game (Richard Gasquet called him the best returner in the game), and his struggles with conditioning and  a breathing problem seem to be things of the past.

Djokovic looks like a man who not only finally believes he is at the level of Fed and Rafa he knows it. And that makes a world of difference. When you know you can accomplish something and have done it, i.e. his two Australian Open championships, the most recent coming only this past January, you don’t have to worry that you can’t do it. It’s like when you finally break through against a guy who has had your number for years at your local club. You know you can take the guy and he knows it. Now that he has beaten Rafa in the finals of a tournament, something he had never done before Indian Wells, who knows where The Joker will take his game.

There was some great stuff all around at Indian Wells. How about Fed and Rafa going at it in the doubles semifinals? It isn’t often you get to see two of greatest players of all time teaming up with their buddies to play doubles. The quality of play was superb as Fed and partner Stanislaw  Wawrinka (former Olympic gold medal winning tandem) beat Rafa and his friend Feliciano Lopez. Fed and Stan then lost to Alexandr Dolgopolov and “The X Man,” Xavier Malisse in a great three-set final.

(By the way, keep a close eye on Dolgopolov. He’s up to 46 in the world, reached the quarters at the Australian, and is poised to finally live up to his wonder kid rep.)

It’s about time doubles got a little respect but too bad it takes having Rafa and Fed involved for the game to get some attention. It’s funny. Doubles is the style played by most recreational or club players, but for some reason television shies away from the game, unless the big singles players are involved, which isn’t often.

It was also interesting to see the way the doubles game has evolved on the hard courts, with three players usually staying back, especially on first serve, and much of the action being played from the baseline until the net player can make a move to cut off a shot from the opponent. It used to be you would always see at least three and more likely all four of the players at the net, trading volleys in rapid fire succession. It’s just so difficult to serve and come into the net these days with the velocity the new equipment can allow the returner to put onto a ball.

The women’s draw was interesting as well. Caroline Wozniacki lived up to her top billing by taking out fellow glamour girl Maria Sharapova in the semis and then dispatching Marion Bartoli, who has one of the strangest games in all of tennis, in the finals. Bartoli, who hit both forehands and backhands two-handed and appears as though she is ready to toss a javelin when she winds up for her serve, did push Wozniacki to three sets.

It was nice to see Sharapova back in the mix. She looked strong in her matches leading up to the semis, but got smoked by Wozniacki, one and two. Maria is still struggling with her serve, although her ground strokes and movement look good and she remains one of the most fiery competitors on either the women’s, or men’s, tour.

So, it’s on to Miami for the Sony Ericson where we’ll see if The Joker and Wozniacki can keep the momentum building for May, when the next Major, the French, is contested.

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