Rafael Nadal still had a commanding lead of 3,170 points at the top of yesterday's updated world rankings list, but the Spaniard might soon start looking over his shoulder. Novak Djokovic is closing on Nadal after extending his winning run to 26 matches with a thrilling victory in the final of the Miami Masters on Sunday night.
Nadal, who lost 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 as Djokovic came back from a set down to beat him in a second Masters Series final in succession, has to defend 7,000 of his total of 12,870 ranking points over the next three months, having swept all before him in the clay-court season last year before going on to win Wimbledon. Djokovic is defending just 1,685 points over the same period.
The European clay-court season begins in earnest next week in Monte Carlo, which is Djokovic's adopted home. The Serb has won nine of his 25 encounters with Nadal but has never beaten him on clay. "He's the king of that surface, the guy to beat, but I think I have the game to challenge him," Djokovic said.
"I showed that in 2009. I think we had some great matches in the final at Monte Carlo and in the semi-finals at Madrid, so it is possible. If I do have an opportunity to play him on clay, obviously I have to be aggressive. Clay is the slowest surface that we have, and it's the surface that suits him best."
Djokovic is unbeaten since the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London five months ago. During his winning run he has led Serbia to Davis Cup glory and won tournaments in Melbourne, Dubai, Indian Wells and Miami.
Nadal said it was difficult to imagine he could repeat his run of 22 unbeaten matches during last year's clay-court season. "Adapting to playing on clay after almost 10 months without playing on the surface is hard in the first days, so we will see," he said. "Hopefully I'm going to be playing well. This is important for my confidence. I'm not going to win Monte Carlo 10 times in a row, that's for sure. I've won six in a row and I'm going to try my best for the seventh."
Despite his poor recent form Andy Murray climbed one place to No 4 in the rankings yesterday thanks to Robin Soderling's early exit in Miami. The Scot has not entered Monte Carlo, although he might yet take a wild card, depending perhaps on his ongoing talks over the appointment of a new coach.