Most eyes are focused on Rafael Nadal as we approach the first major event of the European clay-court season, the Monte Carlo Masters. But I’m equally curious about the prospects of the man who took the tennis world by the scruff of the neck and nearly shook it to death last year, Novak Djokovic.
At this time in 2011, Djokovic was the story of the hard-court stretch (24-0 record with four titles in four events, three of them Masters level or better). But he was preparing to accomplish the unthinkable—bushwhack then-No. 1 Rafael Nadal on red clay.
Djokovic remained in relative seclusion in his training camp until he played the tournament his family owns in Belgrade, Serbia. It took place during the last week in April—just a month before the start of the tournament that everyone habitually conceded to Nadal, the French Open, the capstone of the roughly two months of red-clay tennis that everyone habitually conceded to Nadal.
For the "king of clay," it was business as usual. He played his customary full slate of clay events starting in Monte Carlo, where he preposterously won his seventh consecutive title; the only match he’s lost at the Monte Carlo Country Club (where he is 39-1 to date) was in 2003, his very first year on tour. He lost that one to a guy who would be one point from winning the French Open not long thereafter, Guillermo Coria.
Nadal was in good shape heading into the other two big Masters events on clay, Madrid and Rome. And that’s where Djokovic sprang his shocking ambush. He beat Nadal in both finals, making fans and pundits blink their eyes in disbelief. Were it not for Roger Federer, who took out Djokovic and ended his winning streak in the French Open semis, odds are that Djokovic would have hammered Nadal in that final, too. That’s how off-balance Nadal appeared to be by then, and how invincible Djokovic looked—and felt.
I drag you through all this recent history for one reason: To underscore just how different things will be this year. What was unthinkable just 12 months ago—that anyone could dominate Nadal on clay—became a reality last year. But it’s also true that Djokovic no longer has that element of surprise, and in choosing to play Monte Carlo this year he’s going right into the lion’s den.
Give the guy credit, he’s got sand—or, if you want to get all oxymoronic, a healthy death wish.
It isn't as if Djokovic needs matches or couldn't use the same amount of rest as he took in 2011. He's won two of the four tournaments he’s played so this year (the Australian Open and Miami), the same number he entered to this point in 2011. And he's played just two fewer matches. But at times this year, Nole has taken his foot off the gas and allowed opponents to disrupt the equipoise that was never threatened 12 months ago. Djokovic was beaten by Andy Murray (Dubai) and John Isner (Indian Wells); he hasn’t had to play either Nadal or Federer since his first tournament of the year, so we have no real preview of what might lie in store in as few as eight or nine days.
In Miami recently, Djokovic shrugged off any suggestion that he’s lost even a little bit of his edge now that he and Nadal have switched places at the top, pointedly saying that he’s not playing for “points or ranking.” He knows how high he set the bar for himself last year, and isn’t obsessing about duplicating any part of his record. What he really wants is to do is win the French Open, and that’s about far as his vision extends—for now.
That approach is realistic; it may even represent the ideal attitude. But it also plays right into the hands of his rivals. They can—and will—reason that if Djokovic doesn’t feel obliged to live up to his record of 2011, they may as well take full advantage. Great players know enough to strike while the iron is hot.
In Belgrade last year, Djokovic began his long push on red clay with wins over players ranked (in order, beginning with the first round), No. 175, No. 85, No. 36 (via walkover) and No. 37 Feliciano Lopez, the runner-up. Next week, he might meet a player of Lopez's quality in the first or second round. And the draw will abound in potentially interesting problems named Berdych, Monfils, Ferrer, Almagro, or Monaco.
The fact that Federer is taking a pass on Monte Carlo this year will remove one potentially serious obstacle from Djokovic's path. It's easy to forget that, looking at just the past 18 months, the only real fly in Djokovic's ointment has been Federer. Given Monte Carlo's title sponsor's (Rolex) commercial relationship with the all-time Grand Slam champion, I'm surprised Federer opted out. But I guess that making a reluctant appearance last year, a gesture that ended in a puzzling quarterfinal loss to Jurgen Melzer, convinced Federer that if his heart isn't in it, his racket shouldn't be, either.
Djokovic’s decision to roll the die in Monte Carlo must seem to Nadal like a gift from heaven. It had better, or else Nadal could be in big trouble should he get to the final. You have to admire Djokovic for wading right into the thick of things, even if the deposed No. 1 must be thinking that Monte Carlo is the perfect place to turn the tables in 2012 and pull off an ambush of his own.