April 22, 2012

No Mercy, or "This is My House"

I have to admit, I was a little nervous before Sunday's Monte Carlo final.

Sure, seven-time defending champion Rafael Nadal hadn't lost here since 2003. Yes, he hadn't dropped a set all week and only lost serve twice going into the championship match. And, admittedly, he had a much easier time in his semifinal -- against France's Gilles Simon, he needed less than two hours to dispatch his opponent. Novak Djokovic, on the other hand, spent almost three hours on court Saturday and needed to come back from a set down in two matches this week.

But that didn't necessarily mean anything. Twice last year, in both Rome and Madrid where Nadal had been previously dominant, Djokovic had survived tough semis and each time pulled out a straight set win over the then-champion. He'd also pulled off a handful of other wins over the former world #1 in the past sixteen months, each when a trophy was at stake, five times where the Spaniard was defending the crown. He had beaten his rival on every surface, had narrowed the gap in the pair's head-to-head to a tight 14-16 and had taken over his top ranking. It was quite a demoralizing stretch for Nadal.

Things went a little differently today in Monaco. Rafa, who'd won forty-one straight matches in Monte Carlo coming into the final is clearly more comfortable than anyone else on this surface. He drew first blood against Nole in the fifth game of the match and didn't face a break point in the opening set. He ran off to a 4-0 lead in the second before Djokovic was able to get on the board, finally making a dent on Nadal's serve and earning one break back. But the tide didn't turn for long -- Rafa broke back immediately and held his opponent to just four points on serve the entire set -- all on second attempts. After less than ninety minutes, the real prince of Monaco fired off an ace and sealed in his record eighth title in Monte Carlo -- the most any player has ever won at a single Masters event, and the longest trophy streak at any men's tournament in tennis history.

The win was more significant than even that, though. It reminded Nadal he has what it takes to beat the top player in the sport again, and as he enters what's traditionally the best part of his season he'll need that confidence to climb back to the top. But even beyond that, the vindication proves that, this year at least, no one player is untouchable. And that means the rest of the year is about to get very interesting.

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