Eight titles. Forty-six consecutive matches. Way back, before those numbers began to accumulate, the excellence was easy for Rafael Nadal to bear. But over time, as the numbers went from outstanding to amazing to mind-blowing, they grew heavier and heavier—so heavy that as the end of this week approached, it looked like Nadal’s already rounded shoulders were conspicuously weighed down by those staggering statistics.
This year, though, a man who was not only willing but able to take that weight off Nadal’s shoulders finally appeared on the red-clay stadium court at the Monte Carlo Country Club. It was Novak Djokovic, and he brutally and remorselessly ended Nadal’s run at this tournament—a record of success unlikely to be duplicated, ever, at any event large or small. Djokovic out-pounded, out-ran, out-thought and—most important—out-fought Nadal in this final, winning it 6-2, 7-6 (1).
The match wasn’t as one-sided as the score indicates, which is a tribute to the point-to-point competitive gusto of both men. Who would believe it if you said that this was a close match despite the fact that Nadal had to stave off five set points just to ensure that he didn’t suffer the humiliation of losing a set by 6-0?
In that first set, Djokovic laid out the blueprint for throttling Nadal. It doesn’t make much sense to go through the minutiae of such a lopsided set; let’s just say that a late surge by Nadal prevented the utter blowout. What is important is that Djokovic was able expose the inherent risk Nadal assumes as he habitually overplays to the backhand side. It’s an invitation to go down the line with that backhand, which Djokovic does better than anyone else in the game, and something he did about half the time today.
The world No. 1 also described the relative weakness of Nadal’s sliced backhand—didn’t Rafa tell us that he’d fixed that?—and demonstrated the superiority of the relatively flat, well-angled ball to the egg-shaped topspin shot, hit with a safe margin of error depth if not width-wise. In short, Djokovic made it look like Nadal was playing on a smaller court, with fewer available angles and a much closer horizon.
Still, this was Rafa, and the one thing we could be assured of was that he would not go away quietly after dropping that first set—even after he watched Djokovic survive two break points in the third game of the second to remain on serve at 2-1. In fact, Nadal soon would have just the kind of opening he had been hoping for, without success, throughout the match.
Turning points come in many shapes and sizes, and some of them are well disguised. That was the case in this set, and that moment of reckoning occurred immediately after Nadal exploited a slight lapse in Djokovic’s attentions to take a 3-2 lead. Djokovic pushed back in the next game, driving Nadal to deuce, but the No. 3 seed slammed the door with an ace and an excellent service winner aimed at Nole’s belly-button. At 4-2 for Nadal, it seemed like the “king of clay” and the emperor of Monte Carlo had wrested control of the momentum out of Djokovic’s hands.
But Djokovic wouldn’t give him breathing room. He lashed back at Nadal with a dazzling game—three outright winners and an unreturnable backhand, and suddenly the pressure was right back on Rafa’s shoulders. And that, to my mind, was the point at which this match was resolved.
Djokovic then figuratively spat on his hands, rubbed them together, took hold of his racquet, and went to work once again to find Nadal’s backhand. Once again, he was successful. Nadal made three backhand errors in the next game, two of them from 15-30 down, to allow Djokovic to break back and level it at 4-all.
Still, Nadal earned some breathing room again in the 11th game, when Djokovic’s critical down-the-line shots uncharacteristically misfired and cost him a service game. But Nadal played it relatively safe and Djokovic went for broke—successfully—in the next game. Djokovic earned back the break; on the last two points he hit a pair of winners that ended rallies, one forehand and one backhand.
Clearly, nothing Nadal could do short of losing would lift the pressure of his record at Monte Carlo, and that may help account for how easily Djokovic won the ensuing tiebreaker. The top seed won the first point and then scored an immediate mini-break via a rally-ending forehand error by Nadal. Djokovic made his life much easier by winning his next two service points to take a 4-1 lead. Then, when Nadal wildly drove an inside-out forehand wide to lost the next point, the once unthinkable suddenly became the inevitable.
Djokovic closed out the match with an inside-out forehand winner, and one of the greatest accomplishments in tennis history made a quiet passage from the present into the past.
Stat of the match: The differential in second-serve points won was striking: Nadal converted just 31 percent, just half of Djokovic’s 60 percent rate.