There was a moment Wednesday at the Monte Carlo Masters when Novak Djokovic fans must have been concerned. Chasing a ball played behind him in the first set, he took a tumble changing directions.
A day after the same court swallowed up Juan Monaco and forced the distraught Argentine to retire, would Djokovic be a second victim? Nope.
Djokovic was fine, and on the next point the perhaps-embarrassed Serb showed it by crushing a shot down the line.
His 6-1, 6-4 victory over the ever-workmanlike Andreas Seppi, another bearded Italian, was comfortable, although not as dominant as it could have been in the world No. 1's seasonal clay-court opener on a chilly, windy day at the posh Monte Carlo Country Club. Given that Djokovic lives in Monte Carlo and even took in a bit of the U.S.'s Davis Cup series against France this month at the same venue, he would have been comfortable in his surroundings.
Djokovic spent considerable time between Miami and Monte Carlo working on his fitness and clay-court game, and he was intent, it seemed, on sending a message to archrival Rafael Nadal, who was next up on center court against a similar, albeit better, opponent in Finn Jarkko Nieminen. Djokovic really craves this year's French Open.
Entering play Wednesday, Djokovic and Nadal held identical 6-0 records against their respective challengers.
Djokovic, keen to end Nadal's seven-year reign in Monte Carlo, raced to a 5-0 lead. His body language and focus from the outset hinted he meant business, and his serve, so key to his game, worked. Djokovic was aggressive on the baseline and didn't give Seppi much time to breathe.
After Djokovic won the opening four games in quick time, we thought this could end in less than an hour. But after that fourth game, things turned into a minor struggle for Djokovic. It took him 10 minutes to hold for 5-0, saving three break points, and the familiar glazed look even surfaced once in a while thereafter.
He was never about to be stretched to a third set, but Seppi had chances in Djokovic's final two service games, only for the serve to bail out Djokovic.
Djokovic had to be pleased overall, and the manner in which he struck a ball into the stands after the match suggested as much.
Nadal's supporters, meanwhile, habitually worry about the Spaniard's physical state, and Nadal's uncertainty this week as he discussed his knee injury wouldn't have brightened their mood. Unlike Djokovic, Nadal didn't have proper preparation after Miami, only returning to the courts late last week.
And Nadal was reminded by reporters that he hasn't won a title since last year's French Open; he retorted by saying he's been in plenty of finals.
If only Djokovic wasn't in the equation, eh?
But if ever there was a place to cure Nadal's ills, it's the Cote d'Azur and Monte Carlo. Not only has Nadal won seven titles in a row, but in his past five visits, he's conceded a mere two sets. Nadal began his 2011 clay campaign with a 6-2, 6-2 win against Nieminen, and on Wednesday the final score read 6-4, 6-3. Whereas Djokovic's level dipped in the second set, Nadal's rose.
Nadal needs time on court to get back into the groove, so Nieminen wasn't the worst draw. A break in Nieminen's opening service game presumably allowed Nadal, whose game face was understandably replaced by a nervous look early, to relax.
When Nadal hunched over at the end of the fourth game and appeared to chat with his camp, which featured Uncle Toni, there must have been fear that something was bothering the world No. 2. However, it was probably nothing given the way the match unfolded.
Nieminen, himself healed from a back injury, took to the court with an aggressive mindset, wanting to take balls on the rise and hit behind Nadal. He compiled more winners -- and unforced errors -- in the first set, which ended with a pair of impressive Nadal forehands after Nadal squandered a set point on the Nieminen serve by shanking a forehand return.
Nadal upped his game in the second set. His movement was freer and he sought to be more of the aggressor. Mind you, Nieminen played a poor game to get broken and trail 2-1. Nadal saved his most energetic fist pump for when he sent a running backhand down the line, and later, a Nadal drop shot ignited the point of the match.
Having dropped serve for the only time when trying to serve out the affair, Nadal broke back immediately to advance. The celebration was muted; Nadal will wait to see how his knee feels.
If Nadal reaches Sunday's final and then downs Djokovic, his celebration will be more animated.