As the clock passed 1 p.m. on a warm and dry afternoon in the Coachella Valley, the menu for semifinal Saturday at the Pacific Life Open was quite appetizing.
First up, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, followed by Roger Federer and Mardy Fish. The first three are holders of the four Grand Slam titles, while Fish is a resurging American with a pleasing all-court game.
Who'd have thought Nadal and Federer would be eliminated by 4:15, each thoroughly waxed 6-3, 6-2?
It was hard to imagine two titans could be beaten so swiftly -- until one remembered that the same thing had happened at the same stage earlier this year at the Australian Open.
Changing of the guard? Not quite. Shifting of the guard? Absolutely.
Since 2005, Federer and Nadal have dominated tennis, between them taking 11 straight Grand Slams and 19 of 27 Tennis Masters titles. But the ascent of Djokovic has turned the top into a three-man race.
Once one man's in, maybe others can draw hope.
"Novak's not just a great player, he's a great personality," said Pacific Life Open tournament director Charlie Pasarell. If at one point Djokovic's impersonations of many pros vexed the understated Federer, these days it's his racket that's talking even louder.
In beating Federer in Australia and Nadal in Indian Wells, Djokovic has uncovered -- remarkably and proficiently -- signs of passivity in both the Swiss and the Spaniard. "Djokovic can drive through the ball and penetrate through the court," said Hall of Famer Pancho Segura during the semifinals Saturday. "His game is so complete, he can really hurt people in a lot of ways."
Nadal had beaten Djokovic in the final of the Pacific Life Open a year ago. But Saturday's semifinal was quite revealing. Though Nadal is as fierce, engaging and classy a competitor as tennis has ever seen, the limitations of a game based on topspin, court coverage and attrition become woefully apparent anywhere but clay. "It's tough when you stand that far behind the baseline and a guy like Djokovic can take time away from you," said Segura. By the end of their match, Nadal's technique was in tatters.
As Nadal said after the match, "He plays very inside the court. He always beats me the position inside the court easier than I can do against him. With his backhand, cross backhand, it is bothering me a lot. He [positions himself] inside the court very easy, and that's very difficult when you're playing with these fast balls. He can do it, so that's exceptional quality."
Djokovic's ability to handle Nadal's crosscourt topspin forehand -- the shot that's been the deal breaker in Nadal's ability to beat Federer at Roland Garros -- could have significant consequences anywhere the two meet, including European clay.
In many ways, Fish applied the same kind of pressure to Federer. Like Djokovic, Fish has a compact, forceful backhand that can generate effective pace and depth. The 26-year-old Florida resident's improved forehand and powerful serving also kept Federer continually on his heels.
Said Federer, "I couldn't do much today, and these matches sometimes come around. I'm surprised myself it hasn't happened more in the last five years, you know. You always think one guy can outright dominate you on any given day. People weren't able to do it against me, so that speaks for myself. But today Mardy was really impossible to beat, it almost looked like."
Yet as the Fish onslaught continued, it was staggering to see Federer fail to change his tactics. Gracious as he was to credit Fish, Federer in the second set of his defeat was curiously stubborn, as if it were easier to be resigned to his fate than attempt to alter the flow with the various paces, spins and court positioning that have made him such a supreme champion.
But if in his mind Federer could write off Fish's effort as a one-off, there's no doubting Djokovic's stature. Still, more importantly, in prying open the door, Djokovic has given tactical insight to many of his peers. Yes, there are ways to beat Federer and Nadal. How well the Swiss and the Spaniard respond to these challenges figures to be a fascinating story over the next six months. Different as they are in so many ways, each has won as a baseliner, comfortably dictating play. But with Djokovic -- and maybe others -- able to trade blows and even force the action, perhaps the time has come for Federer and Nadal to add more offense -- for Federer to approach the net more and Nadal to look to attack more with his serve and return.
As Segura said, "You better make yourself better or do more with your game. That's why it's called competition."
Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and Tennis Channel.