A confidence boost for Rafa
April, 22, 2012
By Ravi Ubha, ESPN.com | ESPN.com
Rafael Nadal is a smart guy, so he'll know that Novak Djokovic was far from his best in Sunday's 6-3, 6-1 loss to the Spaniard in the final of the Monte Carlo Masters.
Djokovic needed to be fully focused since he met a highly motivated opponent and was playing in blustery conditions, but after the death of his grandfather Thursday, this was one match too far for the world No. 1. He wasn't himself. There was no intensity.
Despite Djokovic's lethargic display, Nadal is sure to take an enormous amount of confidence from winning his eighth straight title on the Cote d'Azur. He didn't know what to expect entering the tournament because of inactivity that stemmed from a left knee injury, so reaching the final was uplifting in itself.
As it turned out, he didn't drop a set in five matches, and of course, he kissed the seven-match losing streak to Djokovic goodbye.
Quick sit-down: It wouldn't have been a surprise to see the first changeover occur after 20 minutes, given the surface, their styles, the ball bounces and general extended time between points. But it was a rather routine 12 minutes, an average of four minutes per game. Call it a sign of things to come.
Their five-hour, 53-minute epic in Melbourne averaged 6.4 minutes per game overall. At 1:18, the entire match Sunday lasted two minutes less than the first set in Melbourne.
Setting the tone: No one could have predicted the rout after the first two games. Djokovic held comfortably for 1-0, and Nadal escaped a 15-30 hole for 1-1. He thumped an ace down the middle at 15-30 and an emphatic service winner on game point was placed in almost the same spot.
Nadal went for more on his serve throughout and mixed up his location, not, as in past meetings, regularly going out wide on the ad court. He won 85 percent of his first-serve points and 50 percent behind the second serve, great numbers. On clay in Rome (67 percent, 25 percent) and Madrid (55, 39) last season, the figures were less impressive.
Remarkably, Nadal faced a break point in only one game.
Missed chance: The match would have been more lopsided had Nadal not erred on two routine forehands in the fifth game as he chased a double-break advantage. The misses, mind you, didn't matter.
Crisp backhand: Nadal benefited from a little luck. Mishit returns and shanked balls found the line to make things difficult for Djokovic, whose footwork in turn wasn't what it had to be. But unlike in Rome and Madrid, he didn't offer many short backhands -- the kind Djokovic could attack -- and struck the backhand well.
In the third game, for instance, Nadal hit a winning backhand down the line -- and it wasn't with Djokovic at the net. That was unusual. He unloaded on a backhand return cross-court in the second-to-last game as Djokovic ventured forward.
Nice gesture: With Nadal holding a 4-3 advantage in the first, the match was still close, so when Djokovic rubbed out a mark when a Nadal serve was called wide, he deservedly received applause from the masses on Center Court and saved ump Carlos Bernardes a trip from the chair. Nadal apologized, too, on his mishits.
What's next for Nadal: Nadal heads to Barcelona this week brimming with confidence, and without Djokovic in the draw, he will be the overwhelming favorite to make it titles in back-to-back weeks. It could be a Nadal-Andy Murray finale. Nadal was likely in good spirits when he awoke in Monte Carlo on Sunday, after his beloved Real Madrid downed Barcelona 2-1 in soccer's Clasico.
Nadal then gets a week off before the Madrid and Rome double.
What's next for Djokovic: Djokovic was a true professional this week, electing to play Thursday after learning of his grandfather's death. He did his grieving in public, wiping away a tear before his match with Alexandr Dolgopolov in the third round and sobbing when he left the court. He'll have an opportunity to spend time with his family before competing in his home country event, the Serbia Open, which begins April 30. It kicks off a stretch of three tournaments in as many weeks for Djokovic.
If Djokovic confronts Nadal in Rome or Madrid, no doubt he'll be much improved.