Novak Djokovic's unbeaten start to the season is signaling a potential power shift in tennis. Everyone from Rafael Nadal to Roger Federer is taking note.
Djokovic passed Federer for the No. 2 ranking in March and is threatening Nadal for No. 1 at this week's Italian Open after beating the Spaniard in straight sets in Sunday's Madrid Open final. That improved his record to 32-0 this year.
"It is definitely a big step in my career to win against Nadal in his country on a clay court," Djokovic said on Tuesday. "I had never done it before and it's important for the mental aspect as well for upcoming clay-court events."
The French Open, the clay-court Grand Slam that Nadal has won five of the past six years, starts in less than two weeks.
Nobody had beaten Nadal on clay since Robin Soderling surprised the Spaniard at Roland Garros two years ago.
"It's definitely an interesting time right now that Novak hasn't lost all season long," Federer said. "It makes it a new, different situation, but for me it doesn't change a whole lot.
If Djokovic wins his seventh consecutive title of 2011 at the Foro Italico and Nadal fails to reach the semifinals, Djokovic will become the first player other than Nadal or Federer to hold the No. 1 ranking since February 2004.
"Right now these guys are playing better than me and better than other players," Federer said. "I feel like everybody can play on all the surfaces these days and that makes it extremely hard to win all these big tournaments."
Djokovic's streak trails only John McEnroe's 42-0 start in 1984. The Serb has altered his diet and allergy medication, but wouldn't attribute his success to those changes.
"I identify my success with the maturity that I have right now as a person and as a player," Djokovic said. "Everything came together after a four-five year process of learning and getting experience on the tour and being patient and just working hard and hoping that one day this work would pay off.
"I think I always had the quality to beat the best players in the world on different surfaces, but now I believe it more on the court and I'm more stable and I just know what to do."
Djokovic's 34 straight wins since Serbia's Davis Cup triumph in December is the ninth best in the Open era.
"I didn't expect to win every match that I played in the first four-five months in 2011," he said. "But as I said, it's been a a very long-running process for me and a lot of hard work, a lot of dedication every single day of my life to this sport."
While Nadal and Djokovic are pulling away from him in the rankings, Federer isn't giving up hope, especially after taking a set from Nadal in the Madrid semifinals.
"It's good for tennis that these guys are playing so well at the moment. But obviously all the other players are right behind waiting for the opportunity to strike and I'm one of them," Federer said. "I've played basically only semifinals or better since Wimbledon last year, that's why I feel I'm really in position to do it.
"I again was really close up against Rafa and so all I need to do is to get that step further and I hope I will do that this week."
Federer's first opponent in Rome on Wednesday will be former Australian Open runner-up Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
"I'm looking forward to it. I think it's a very exciting first round and I like to play against him," Federer said.
Nadal opens against either Italian qualifier Paolo Lorenzi or Brazil's Thomaz Bellucci, who reached the Madrid semifinals before losing to Djokovic. Djokovic starts against Polish qualifier Lukasz Kubot.
Federer noted that the conditions in Rome are closer to those at the French Open, and even Djokovic acknowledged that the high altitude in Madrid aided his victory over Nadal.
"If there is any place you have a chance against Rafa on clay that's probably Madrid because of the conditions there," Djokovic said. "It's a bit faster and the ball flies through the air a bit more than at other tournaments."
Not that he's complaining, especially with the top ranking now close.
"There is a difference between the dream that I had all my life and the ambition that I have," Djokovic said. "The ambition is to be No. 1 and the dream is to win Wimbledon. These are the two things that I've always wanted to do most, but of course everything that comes on the side I don't complain (about).
"The No. 1 is obviously getting closer for me but it still takes a lot of work to get there. And if I do get there in a couple weeks, a couple months or a couple of years it doesn't matter. I'll still try to get to this point, and after that I really don't know what's going to happen."