We expected fireworks. What was got, instead, was a funeral. In all my years of watching tennis, I can recall just one match that promised so much and delivered so little as did the Monte Carlo final today between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic: the 2008 French Open final. That both those matches involved Nadal emerging triumphant should remind us just how devastating Nadal can be on clay – a fact that had maybe gotten a little obscured in the midst of Djokovic’s incredible run of victories over the last year and a half. Nadal is so good on this surface that he can make the impossible look routine – did you catch those physics-defying gets and inhuman sprints at the back of the court that left Djokovic so thoroughly flummoxed? And did you hear that this was Nadal’s eighth consecutive title at Monte Carlo? What Nadal has done at this venue may well be one of the most uniquely supernatural feats in all sports. And yet, after the last point was done and his Herculean task completed, Nadal let out very little on the court. Just a simple roar of victory, a celebratory raising of the arms, followed by a jog to the net and the customary handshake. Still, we should be thankful even for that low-key end, because that brief, even subdued display of emotion from Nadal was the only thing all afternoon that breathed any life on to the court.
We all knew that coming into the match, Djokovic wasn’t in the best frame of mind, having lost his beloved grandfather during the course of the tournament. But what none of us expected was for the incident to have as great an impact on Djokovic’s play in the final as is reflected by a tally of 25 unforced errors and just 11 winners. The Serb missed routine backhands, buried rally forehands into the net and was even let down by his signature shot – his return of serve. The rare glimpses he showed of his world-beating game – an insanely wide-angled backhand that pulled Nadal off the court here, a crushing down the line forehand that left Nadal lunging hopelessly for the ball there – were almost invariably followed by either a botched kill shot or an error on the next point. And Djokovic’s body language was even worse than his play (if that was even possible): he looked like a man who would rather have been anywhere in the world but for a tennis court. The Serb looked nothing like a World No. 1 today, and that, more than anything, was the biggest shocker of the day.
In hindsight, Djokovic seemed to have been out of sorts all tournament. Against Dolgopolov, he did nothing more than take his chances against a mercurial opponent, while in the semis, battling against the windy conditions as much as he was the opponent, he dug in deep and simply wore out the increasingly erratic Berdych with relentless retrieving. He played on auto-pilot in his first 4 matches of the tournament, and it is a testament to how solid his game has become that it was enough to take him to the final. But you don’t play against Rafael Nadal on auto-pilot, even if you have won 7 matches in a row against him. You just don’t.
As early as the second game of the match, Djokovic was faced with an uphill climb; he seemed unwilling to construct points with the patience and court smarts he has displayed recently, and when he was pulling the trigger, he was making more errors than winners. That’s a terrible combination under any circumstances, and against Nadal, on clay, it is a sureshot recipe for disaster. As it turned out, those first couple of listless games from Djokovic were all the invitation that Nadal needed, who swooped in and unleashed the full force of his explosive game to kill the match as a contest. He unloaded on his serve (and still made 80% of his first serves), hit his inside-out and down the line forehand fearlessly and even managed to stay toe-to-toe with Djokovic on his backhand, the one shot that had most conspicuously let him down in that string of 7 losses to the Serb. By the end he was dancing all around the court, running around his backhand at will (not that he needed to), and looking like a master giving a lesson to a tantrum-throwing school child. Yes, that was how one-sided this match was.
All through the last 18 months, Nadal has consistently made tournament finals, painstakingly fighting off his early round opponents, and he has stubbornly put his best foot forward in one dispiriting loss against Djokovic after another. It would have been easy, even forgivable, for Nadal to seriously consider not putting himself through so much torture over and over again. But the consummate professional in the Spaniard refused to be discouraged by the pile of losses – you knew that even if he lost seventeen finals to Djokovic instead of seven, he would still fight tooth and nail to be there in the final, and he would still try everything in his power to outlast his seemingly superior rival. Naturally, his ‘seemingly superior’ rival would stumble one day, and Nadal would be there, ready to grab the spoils. And that, in a nutshell, is where Nadal’s greatness lies: the man doesn’t know when he’s defeated, and after a point, his opponents lose sight of that too.
Djokovic is still the No. 1 player in the world, and as strange as this may sound, this result has actually increased his lead over Nadal in the rankings (last year, Nadal won Monte Carlo and Djokovic didn’t play here at all, so any ranking points the Serb collected this week were a bonus for him). But in the grander scheme of things, this may well be recognized as the tournament that freed Nadal from the depths of uncertainty and negativity in the dynamic of his rivalry with Djokovic. Would Djokovic have been better off withdrawing from the tournament? Maybe, but if he had, he wouldn’t have been the player we’ve come to know and admire over the last year and a half. On the other hand, Nadal has used Monte Carlo in the past as the springboard to start off his near-unstoppable dominance of the clay swing. With a win over his nemesis to start things in 2012, who’s to say he won’t turn in a flawless clay season? Wait, scratch that – Nadal has already achieved the perfect clay court season (in 2010). Maybe this year, which has begun with this ridiculous 8-year winning streak, Nadal will shoot for the most ridiculously overpowering clay season in history.