- Bonnie D. Ford, ESPN Senior Writer
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PARIS -- As the tennis world continues to parse the meaning of Rafael Nadal's loss to Roger Federer in the Madrid title match last week, debating whether it would be relevant at sea level on softer clay if the two men meet in a fourth straight French Open final, it might be easy to overlook the elephant in the room.
That imposing creature would be fourth seed Novak Djokovic, who fell just short in a gladiatorial effort against Nadal in the Madrid semifinals but may have gotten more of a rocket boost from that loss than any recent win. There's a strong argument to be made that Djokovic, not Federer, would pose the more serious threat to Nadal's dynastic reign here.
History remains stacked in Nadal's favor. Djokovic is 4-14 against him lifetime and 0-9 on clay. But the abyss that once yawned between them has become narrow enough for Djokovic to jump.
Nadal had to fend off three match points in Madrid. Just as importantly, Djokovic hung in there physically with the normally tireless Spaniard during their four-hour epic -- a major accomplishment for a player whose endurance and willingness to tough out long, draining matches have been questioned in the past.
"I would put him as the second favorite right now," ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe said. "He's a little more solid on clay than Roger is, technically. He doesn't have Roger's shot-making ability, but his high backhand is a good shot, and that's obviously Rafa's go-to play against Roger.
"His game matches up better [with Nadal's] than Roger's does on clay. He's more solid off both wings. He's a little bit better defender. He's got that penetrating two-handed backhand, he can just rip it crosscourt, and maybe you get Rafa stretched out wide on the forehand. Then you attack his backhand. It's hard to believe he's going to beat Rafa on clay in a best-of-five, but then again, it's hard to believe anyone's going to beat him."
Djokovic wisely has refrained from making any bold proclamations about being the world's second-best clay-court player, but before the tournament started, he did admit that Madrid "gave me even more self belief that in our next encounter, I might win against him."
"If you talk about my matches on this clay-court season against Rafa, you know, basically looking at each match getting closer and closer," Djokovic said. "So there's only one more point to go. But it's not that easy. Again, I'm saying I played probably one of the best matches in my life against him on the clay court, even though I lost it.
"I must be proud of myself with the way I performed. And as I was saying to my coach after the match, you know, if I didn't go for the shots, if I wasn't aggressive enough when I needed to be on the match points, I would be angry with myself. But it was the opposite way. You know, he had to make some unbelievable shots to win those points, which he did, again."
The quality of the match was so high that Nadal's mentor, Carlos Moya, felt compelled to tell Djokovic it was the best three-set match he'd ever seen played on clay. ESPN analyst Mary Carillo agreed.
"Honestly, there was nothing between them," Carillo said of Djokovic and Nadal. "He went after Nadal, he was aggressive when he needed to be, he was very smart. And it took everything Nadal had to turn him back. I have not seen Roger do that to him. "
Djokovic's bid to be a spoiler in the Nadal-Federer sweepstakes begins Tuesday against tenacious Ecuadorean veteran Nicolas Lapentti. Nadal has halted Djokovic's forward progress in straight-sets semifinals for two years running (in a moral victory of sorts, Djokovic was the only man to push Nadal to a tiebreaker in 2008), but there won't be a repeat of that scenario.
For the first time in four years, Djokovic and Nadal are on opposite sides of the draw, making a final at least theoretically possible. But that road is strewn with obstacles, including fifth-seeded Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina, who's in Djokovic's quarter, and Federer.
There are a couple of other major differences between this year and last. Djokovic and Nadal played two finals on clay this spring leading up to Madrid, in Monte Carlo and Rome. Djokovic's play has improved each time, and his relentlessness in Spain is widely credited with wearing Nadal down to the point where he was easier quarry for Federer in the final.
Djokovic also won the inaugural ATP-level clay-court tournament in Belgrade, Serbia, earlier this month, an event owned by his family. If that sounds like a setup, think again -- Djokovic told reporters the tournament was one of the most stressful of the season, as he was mobbed constantly by adoring fans and weighed down with expectations.
Finally, Djokovic hired a new trainer about a month ago to directly address his fitness issues: Gebhard Phil-Gritsch, who once served in the same capacity for 1995 French Open champion and former No. 1 Thomas Muster of Austria.
"He made that commitment and accepted the fact that it was something he needed to improve," McEnroe said. "Mentally, it gives you more options if you know your fitness is there. If you're questioning your fitness, you have to come in ripping and hope you can get up and get hot. But if you know you can stay the course, you can say, 'I can come out ripping, but if it gets to deuce on Nadal's serve, I'm willing to grind. I'll grind when I have to.'"
Carillo said Djokovic appears to be in a very different frame of mind than he was earlier this year, when he had trouble adjusting to a new racket and generally seemed irritable and uncomfortable in his own skin.
He frittered away chances to overtake Federer for the No. 2 ranking, retired from a match he was in the midst of losing to Andy Roddick in the heat of the Australian Open and wilted in similarly torrid conditions against Andy Murray in the Sony Ericsson Open final in Miami. "Yet again, I was, I think, the biggest enemy to myself," he said afterward.
"He's got the attitude back," Carillo said, but it's an altered state from that of the cheeky young man who used to get laughs by imitating Nadal's on-the-court tics. These days, Djokovic would rather try to emulate the on-the-court resolve that has brought Nadal so much success.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.