April 21, 2013

The End of an Era

It's a little difficult to remember what life was like back when Rafael Nadal wasn't champion at Monte Carlo. But after this week's action at the first clay court Masters event of the season, we've gone back to exactly that world.

It was always going to be a tough task for the eight-time champion -- having missed seven months of action since Wimbledon last year, there was a lot of pressure on him to defend the boatload of points he'd accumulated at this time last year. But he was 17-1 since his return at Viña del Mar, had accumulated three titles already, including one which saw him defeat three top ten players in a row, and despite a couple tests during the week, eventually reached his ninth straight final in Monaco.

Meanwhile, world #1 Novak Djokovic faced challenges as well on his way to a middling-by-comparison third Monte Carlo championship -- an ankle injury threatened to keep him out of the event entirely, and he lost opening sets to both Mikhail Youzhny and Juan Monaco -- but he eventually got his game together in the later rounds.

And his renewed strength was apparent from the get-go in Sunday's rain-delayed final. He started off winning five straight games off Rafa, threatening to deliver the Spanish star his first bagel set on the dirt since Hamburg in 2007. Nadal tried to stage a bit of a comeback, capitalizing on Nole's errors to get one break back, but eventually dropped serve himself again and lost the set. Momentum seemed to shift in the second set though -- Nadal got a break early, and though he lost it soon after, he was able to eventually earn the right to serve out the set. But Djokovic had come with a mission -- with his shots consistently finding their marks and his errors getting cleaned up, he broke back for a tiebreak which he dominated from the first serve.

Nole's win harkens back to his stellar 2011 season when he stunned Nadal in four straight Masters finals, two on Rafa's favorite surface. Circumstances are different of course -- the Serb isn't running quite the streak he was then, and Nadal is still trying to get his groove back. But it sure looks like we're in for a few exciting weeks coming up. Now the question is, of course, whether Novak will be able to do it best-of-five.

After all, if he's ever going to complete the not-so-elusive (these days) Grand Slam, this could be his best shot to do it.

No comments: