April 15, 2012
April 11, 2012
No one beats Rafael Nadal eight times in a row.
After nearly 18 months and seven consecutive losses, all in finals, an inspired Nadal convincingly defeated an obviously subpar Novak Djokovic in the final of the Monte Carlo Masters 6-3, 6-2 Sunday. It was, incredibly, Nadal's eighth title at one of the oldest events in the sport, in itself a remarkable achievement. No other male player in the open era has won a single tour event more often.
Make no mistake: This match meant the world to Nadal and was of far less significance to Djokovic. If Nadal had lost yet again to Djokovic on his favorite surface and at his favorite non-Grand Slam event, a creeping futility may well have taken up permanent residence in Nadal's psyche. But Nadal made sure from the start that this would be his day. And with the French Open just a month away, Nadal couldn't have asked for a better start as he sets his sights on his seventh title at Roland Garros.
The match lasted only 1 hour, 18 minutes. Several individual sets contested between the two have taken far longer. Tennis fans have become so accustomed to near-epic matches every time these two face one another that a dull and anticlimactic match was bound to take place.
Amazingly, Nadal's rivalry with Djokovic has surpassed his legendary competition with Roger Federer 31 matches to 28. (Nadal leads Federer 18-10 and Djokovic 17-14.) While the Nadal-Federer rivalry is permanently seared into tennis lore as perhaps the finest of the modern era, Nadal's continuing battles with Djokovic are must-see viewing. When all is said and done, perhaps the Nadal-Djokovic rivalry will be considered richer.
Djokovic was clearly not at his best Sunday. Aside from the cool, blustery conditions that played havoc with the tennis ball all week, the death of Djokovic's grandfather last week took a toll on him. His grandfather had a gigantic influence on the young Djokovic, especially in tennis. And being unable to attend his funeral must have weighed heavily on his mind. The world No. 1 said as much.
"He took his opportunities [in the] first set and made a break, and that's it," Djokovic said. "I didn't make him play at all. I just was out there trying to put the ball in the court. It's been a tough week, not just for me but for everybody in my family. We're going through this together. In the end, I played the final, and I'm really happy for that."
But that is not to take anything from Nadal's efforts. In two short sets, Nadal executed all the strategic checkmarks that are mandatory if he is to turn the tables in his rivalry with Djokovic.
For one, Nadal served brilliantly. He's not serving with the incredible power he did during the second half of 2010, but Nadal got a high percentage of first serves in, and the placement was the best it has been in some time. Granted, Djokovic's normally intimidating return game wasn't on display at the most scenic setting in tennis, but Nadal's precision was superb.
Secondly, instead of getting involved in the exhausting, extended rallies that now seem decided in Djokovic's favor 51 percent of the time, Nadal attacked more frequently and mixed up speeds effectively. This, in addition to standing much closer to the baseline and not allowing Djokovic to take control early in a point, was the main reason the outcome was decided in the opening minutes. When Nadal approaches the net after the first short ball he is offered, that is a clear sign of his comfort level.
It's almost as if the last year and a half is absent of any meaning when Nadal takes to the red dirt every April. Spring is truly the season of renewal for Nadal, and he rediscovers his game and his purpose when he's back on clay. It's getting more difficult to find a parallel to Nadal's dominance on clay in all of sport. After appearing vulnerable - if only to Djokovic, as no one else threatens Nadal consistently - Nadal hits the reset button and is once again the ebullient, talented magician who becomes unbeatable. Indeed, it's almost a childlike lack of concern, an innate confidence that's hard to describe.
Despite his crucial victory, it will mean nothing without a French Open triumph. After all, Federer can still score dominating victories against Nadal in non-Slam encounters, but he hasn't defeated Nadal at a Slam since 2007. And until Nadal beats Djokovic again in a Slam, there will be some doubts. We'll likely get another glimpse of Nadal's level of confidence against Djokovic as the two will surely meet in at least one more final before Paris.