Novak Djokovic versus Rafael Nadal, we've heard those words before 31 matches now. With all due respect to Roger Federer, the clashes between Nadal and Djokovic are fast becoming the defining rivalry of this current era of men's tennis, Nadal holds a slim 17-14 lead. Djokovic and Nadal are now the top two ranked players in the world, the winners of the last eight majors (four apiece) and their matches are pushing the very boundaries of the sport in terms of endurance and explosive shotmaking. The history left us (and most of the tennis world) salivating at the prospect of another final between the man dubbed the King of Clay and the reigning King of Tennis. This round would end with Nadal firmly atop his throne once more, drubbing a subpar Djokovic 6-3, 6-1 and winning his record-extending eighth Rolex Monte Carlo Masters and 20th ATP Masters 1000 title.
Coming into the Monte Carlo final this year, things were surely different than their last Monte Carlo final back in 2009, but also different than their last clash back in Australia. Neither competitor entered the Monte Carlo Country Club's venerable centre court with a perfectly clear mind and understandably so. Nadal would face the man who took his No. 1 ranking, his beloved Wimbledon title, his hard-earned US Open title and took what seemed to be the Spaniard's best shot in their legendary (nearly) six-hour Australian Open epic a couple of months ago. What Djokovic really took from Nadal was his sense of inevitability, of immortality, on a tennis court. In fact, the man dubbed the King of Clay, whose statistics on the surface are downright gaudy admitted he was coming into the match as the underdog. "When one player beats another one seven times in a row, clay, hard, and grass," Nadal reasoned, "is very easy to decide the favorite."
Djokovic faced mortality this week in a real sense, losing his grandfather on Thursday before gutting out an understandably emotional win over Alexandr Dolgopolov. Yet, while he would have been excused for doing so, at least this week, the Serbian champion did not waver, playing his way through to another Masters Series final, his seventh in the last twelve contested, and another meeting with Nadal. For Djokovic, this week's wins have not been reminders of the machine-like accuracy and near superhuman defense Djokovic can summon at his absolute best. This week, the man we half jokingly dubbed Robo-Nole last season had proven entirely human, often playing patchy, listless tennis that his frustrated demeanor betrayed as far removed from his best. Perfect or not, until Sunday, Djokovic kept reaching the ultimate goal: victory. With every match won, Djokovic marched another step closer to capturing the Spaniard's last, but most heavily fortified citadels, the Monte Carlo title he'd held for seven years running and the Roland Garros trophy that is all but preinscribed with his name before the tennis world makes its annual springtime stroll down the Champs-Elysees and out to the red clay courts just outside the Peripherique.
The siege has been a long time coming, as much as Nadal was a patiently striving understudy behind Roger Federer; Djokovic lay in wait behind both Federer and Nadal. For years, the Federer and Nadal show was an incomparable high wire, high stakes rivalry that was perhaps the sport's most compelling and most consistent the halcyon days of early 90s Steffi Graf and Monica Seles. Then all of a sudden, their Gabriela Sabatini started winning too...or instead, as it were. The rise of Djokovic laid waste to the Federer-Nadal axis. Djokovic won ten titles (including three majors) in 2011, seismically shifting the ATP rankings for the first time since 2005 and relegating Federer-Nadal matchups to semifinal Saturday fodder, no longer worthy of Sundays where Djokovic now held sway.
Nadal's fight back has also been a long time coming. For a player famed for his never-say-die attitude, there seemed to be a fatalism about his matchups with Djokovic. By the end of last season, it seemed as if Nadal didn't really believe he could beat Djokovic anymore, at least not the Robo-Nole who dominated the proceedings last year. We saw the first inkling of Nadal striking back in the[is year's Australian Open final. A match that frankly could have ended with either man hoisting the trophy. Djokovic would ultimately defend his title winning 7-5 in the fifth set, but it was a different Djokovic-Nadal clash than we had seen in much of 2011. Nadal was in it, toe-to-toe, mano a mano before losing his focus late in the proceedings and ultimately capitulating to the better man on the day. At the time, we said both of these players would be back and a couple months later, here they were.
Coming into today's matchup, Djokovic pointed out "I don't think him, me or any other player can really change his style of game by big margins. You can tactically maybe make little adjustments." Watching today's matchup, it was clear that Nadal, Francisco Roig and Uncle Toni were planning to do just that... and why not, nothing else had worked. Seven consecutive matches lost to Djokovic. Nadal, who went into 2011 with one of the greatest strike rates in major final history (9-2), is now 10-5 on the game's biggest stages losing three times at the pinnacle of the sport to Djokovic, winning the one time when Djokovic didn't face him, the Roland Garros final versus Federer. The little adjustments worked. Strangely enough today's match echoed the last time Nadal beat Djokovic in a major, the 2010 US Open final. Nadal served better than in any match since that tournament, posting three aces and winning 85% of his first serve points. Nadal also consistently found good length on his groundstrokes, keeping Djokovic from pushing his way inside the baseline and into the match.
Ultimately, it can never be said that Djokovic played anything approaching his best tennis today, he sprayed his forehand all over the court, punched the net with so many errant shots it could have been mistaken for a heavy bag and generally played after the first few games as if it was all over but the surrrender. Given what Djokovic has had to face this week, it's understandable that the emotional well ran dry; given what Nadal's faced in the last year in Djokovic it was necessary to at least try to go that well once more. When all was said and done, today's matchup was as much about the up and downs in life as it was the bounces of the ball on the crushed red brick. Today, Nadal was up and Djokovic was down; ergo the result.
Nadal's often up in Monte Carlo. This tournament has been played annually (with exceptions for the World Wars) since 1897, the list of champions is storied, Bjorn Borg was thrice the winner, as were clay court luminaries Thomas Muster, Ilie Nastase and Nicola Pietrangeli, look 'em up kids, these guys were some of the best to ever play on the red stuff. Rafael Nadal just win his eighth consecutive title at the Mediterranean-facing Monte Carlo Country Club. No man in the Open era has ever won a tour event eight consecutive times, the only other man to even have won eight titles non-consecutively in the Open era is Guillermo Vilas at his home event at Buenos Aires, which he won seven times in a row and eight times overall.
Certainly, today is a day for Nadal to celebrate, but not too much, he's expected in Barcelona where his run at a seventh title on the Catalan clay commences with a second round match (following a bye) likely on Wednesday. For Djokovic, this is a moment to regroup; on a personal front, from the loss of his grandfather earlier in the week; on a tennis front, from a dispiriting loss. Nonetheless, Djokovic knows this match against did not represent his best tennis. However, he also knows that Nadal having stanched the bleeding from seven consecutive losses and back on his favorite surface is more dangerous than he's been in a long time.
When we see them together again in Madrid, we hope to have a more accurate read on where both men stand going into Roland Garros, but we can't say that for sure. Life has a way of disrupting the clean arc of a narrative. This week has been a good reminder that Djokovic and Nadal have more than each other to worry about when they enter a tennis tournament, there's a whole world off of the crushed brick that could jolt the storyline again. What's next? Wait and see.