May 26, 2013
"I am not the kind of player who is stupid and says, 'I want to play against the best,'"
- Rafael Nadal speaking to reporters on Saturday after being told he’ll play Novak Djokovic in the finals of the Monte Carlo Masters.
So much for the injured ankle.
Just two weeks after a hobbled Novak Djokovic led Serbia to a thrilling victory over the United States in Davis Cup play, Djokovic played a nearly flawless match in defeating the favored Rafael Nadal to claim his first Monte Carlo Masters title, 6-2, 7-6 (1). It was as dominant and comprehensive a victory over Nadal as one will likely ever witness on clay.
While it was not a particularly bitter defeat for Nadal – after all, he had won the Monte Carlo championship an incredible eight years in a row up until Sunday’s final – it was nonetheless a major indication that if Nadal looks to capture an eighth French Open title in six weeks’ time, the Mallorcan has a lot more work to do, even on his beloved red clay, if he is to again solve the Djokovic puzzle.
In fact, 2013 is shaping up to be very similar to 2011. During Djokovic’s historic 2011 campaign, he won the Australian Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open and also rampaged through the clay court season, defeating Nadal twice in French Open warmups before Roger Federer stunned Djokovic in the French Open semifinals.
Throughout most of 2011, Djokovic always seemed to be a step ahead of Nadal. And by that year’s end, after Djokovic beat Nadal in the U.S. Open final (he also triumphed over Nadal in the Wimbledon final) Nadal’s on-court futility against Djokovic was palpable. While Nadal turned the tables in 2012, defeating Djokovic three consecutive times on clay, culminating with his eighth French championship, it does appear – at this early stage in 2013 at least - that the rivalry has been reset once again in Djokovic’s favor (Nadal still leads their overall head-to-head 19-15).
In yesterday’s final, Djokovic asserted himself from the start. Playing almost perfect tennis for the first 45 minutes, the 25 year-old Serb ran off five straight games against Nadal to start the match. Hitting winners from both sides and consistently forcing Nadal into defensive positions, particularly on his more vulnerable backhand wing, Djokovic looked impenetrable as he raced out to the early lead.
With the ball not bouncing as high as it usually does for Nadal on the dirt, and with Djokovic taking the ball very early – so early in fact that Djokovic looked to be channeling Andre Agassi – Nadal was constantly on the run. There are those who will take note of the high number of unforced errors on the afternoon for Nadal, but that is missing the point. On the majority of those errors, Nadal was rushing, and felt he had to make the perfect shot to get the ball past the inexhaustible Djokovic.
The match did tighten up significantly after that blazing start by Djokovic. Nadal righted course toward the end of the first set and strung together two consecutive games before Djokovic claimed the first stanza. And in the second set Nadal had leads of 4-2 and then 6-5, where he served for the set.
But, just as in 2011 when Djokovic had a mental hold over Nadal, no lead was safe for the defending champion. Djokovic broke back with relative ease. And by the time the tiebreaker was contested, it was all but a formality at that point as Nadal looked visibly mentally drained from the effort.
Of most concern for Nadal is the way Djokovic is unthreatened by Nadal’s serve, as evidenced by Djokovic winning 88 percent of second-serve offerings. If Nadal is to raise his level and reclaim the upper hand in their riveting rivalry, he’ll have to turn his serve into somewhat of an offensive weapon. Knowing how brilliant Djokovic is when he’s on the dead run, arms outstretched, it’d be wise for Nadal to again utilize the body serve more frequently, and not allow Djokovic to get such acute angles on his returns.
Another vulnerable area of Nadal’s that Djokovic exploited on Sunday was the drop shot. On several occasions throughout the match Djokovic utilized the drop shot to interrupt a rally and each time Nadal wasn’t able to muster any kind of response. This strategy was also used frequently by upcoming star Grigor Dmitrov in his quarterfinal match against Nadal, a match that Nadal barely got through. It’s become clear that Nadal, even on clay, will need to adjust his game and reassert himself – by both stepping into the court more and maintaining an aggressive game plan.
For Djokovic, there’s really nothing he could have done any better. He didn’t seek out the forecourt, venturing to the net only 11 times. But since he is perhaps the only player who can hold his own with Nadal from the backcourt, Djokovic didn’t need to test his still somewhat shaky net play. Sunday’s victory will give the already confident Djokovic reason to believe that, finally, he can complete the career Grand Slam and claim his first French Open in June.
As for Nadal, while he is surely disappointed that he couldn’t extend his record in Monte Carlo, it’s really all about Paris. And after coming back from an eight-month injury layoff and winning the Indian Wells Masters event in March, the year should already be labeled as successful … but he knows that the path to Slam glory will mean beating Djokovic.