Monte Carlo Masters 2013: Djokovic wins final to end historic Nadal era
Monte Carlo Masters 2013: Novak Djokovic triumphs in Monaco after ending Rafael Nadal's remarkable winning streak
Even before the draw was made for the first clay Masters event of the year in Monte Carlo, it would be hard to find a man, woman or child who would dare to bet against Rafael Nadal.
For in this tiny, well-heeled corner of Europe, the Principality of Monaco, there has been one ‘king’, the master not just of Monte Carlo’s green and orange terraces but of clay around the world.
The Spaniard’s statistics have been eye-watering.
The best match record on clay in the Open era: 270-20, a 38-5 record in clay finals, a 48-1 streak in Monte Carlo, his only loss a third-round exit as a 16-year-old in 2003 exactly 10 years ago to the day—then a run of eight consecutive titles and every French Open since 2005 except one, in 2009.
As if all that was not enough, Nadal hit the tour in February after a seven-month absence to reach five out of five finals: He arrived in Monte Carlo on the back of three straight titles.
Against any other player, the task of beating Nadal here took on Everest proportions, but against Novak Djokovic there was just the chance of an upset.
They were meeting for the 34th time in their 16th final. Indeed, despite the aura surrounding the Federer-Nadal rivalry and the intrigue of the Djokovic-Murray rivalry, the Nadal-Djokovic match-up has become the most significant between the ‘big four’, the fourth most played in the Open era.
On paper, Nadal had a 19-14 overall advantage, and an astonishing 12-2 on clay, including all three finals last year: Monte Carlo, Rome and the French Open. But in only the season before, in 2011, Djokovic had dominated Nadal through all seven finals, including two on clay. And this year, Djokovic was on a 25-2 win record that included the Australian Open and Dubai titles.
However, Djokovic’s biggest weapon—not surprising in a man who stands 4,000 points clear in the rankings—is his self belief, and that was not in short supply: “I need to have a very optimistic mindset in order to get a win. I’m not going out there to play my best; I’m going out there to win. That’s how I’m going to feel.”
Nadal was, as is his way, more circumspect: “To have a chance of beating him I need to be playing at 100 per cent. I don’t know if I’m ready, but I’m going to try.”
The suspense, then, was palpable, though their arrival on court was delayed by torrents of rain. The Monte Carlo faithful would have to wait an hour more for blue skies, bright sunshine, shimmering orange courts and the return of the combatants—but they would not be disappointed.
It was clear from the start that Djokovic intended to lead from the front—take the initiative, play aggressively—and he pressured Nadal’s opening serve with his angled ground-strokes from inside the baseline. It took 26 shots for Nadal to win his opening point, and he followed it with an edgy double fault. Djokovic kept up the pressure through three deuces and more than seven minutes before a bullet of a backhand down the line drew a Nadal error on break point.
Djokovic persisted with his aggressive tactics. He was able, despite the still-drying court, to generate huge pace down either wing, constantly opening up the court wide to Nadal’s forehand and then backhand before producing the coup de grace—more often than not, a killer of a backhand down the line or cross-court.
He tore open Nadal’s serve again in the fourth, and a cruel net cord on break point gave Djokovic a 4-0 lead.
Now, Djokovic threw in a serve-and-volley winner, and sealed another service game with an ace: 5-0. Never had Nadal’s back been against the wall of a clay court so firmly, and in the sixth game, Djokovic opened with a backhand winner down the line followed by a forehand straight past a rooted Nadal: The Spaniard was facing two more break points and the prospect of a bagel set.
Nadal closed to deuce but still Djokovic found winners at will to earn three more set points. Finally, and to huge cheers of encouragement from the crowd, Nadal got on the board, 5-1.
Djokovic attempted to serve out the set with an adventurous patch of net rushes, but it cost him dear—three unforced errors and a break back—but it simply delayed the inevitable. Djokovic deployed his exocet backhand to bring up an eighth set point, Nadal double faulted, and the Serb led, 6-2.
The set might have been over far quicker than its 46 minutes if Djokovic had converted more than three of his 10 break point chances. Even so, it had been a dominant, high-quality start from the world No1, and he did not let up in the second set.
He continued to toy with Nadal in the opening game and sealed his hold with a lethal drop-and-lob combo. Nadal, though, simply redoubled his effort, made his first love hold and pummelled his forehand at Djokovic to earn two break points. He could not convert them but did so in the fifth.
So began the most intense power-struggle of the match, as advantages swung back and forth. Djokovic reimposed himself with his irresistible combination of accuracy, timing and intelligent placement. With a run of 10 out of 12 points, he broke back and held for a 5-4 lead.
Still Nadal was not done, showing himself to be just as smart by drawing Djokovic in with sliced backhands only to pass him with his signature forehand down the line. He broke again to give himself the chance to serve out the set, only for Djokovic to repeat his line-skimming antics to break for a tie-break.
The Serb had been the dominant player for most of the match, even in the face of the gritty Nadal surge. The Spaniard had thrown all he had at Djokovic but the Serbian package of near-perfect defensive and offensive ball-striking and remarkable athleticism was irresistible. Djokovic raced to a 7-1 victory to bring down the curtain on one of sport’s most outstanding records.
Djokovic, addressing the crowd in French, then switching to English, said afterwards: “I cannot ask for a better start to the clay season.” It was a comment full of significance.
Djokovic said back in Dubai that the French Open was his major target for the year—that would complete his career Grand Slam. His biggest obstacle in fulfilling that ambition is Nadal, who has beaten him at Roland Garros four times—in their first ever meeting in 2006 and in their most recent, last year’s final.
So this win, on the court where Nadal has reigned supreme for so long, has well and truly thrown down the Serbian gauntlet. For the first time in years, Nadal may not arrive in Roland Garros as the red-hot favourite.