Monday, April 23, 2012
Finally, some comfort for Rafael Nadal
In the big picture, maybe No. 1 Novak Djokovic would have been better off letting sleeping dogs lie. Rafael Nadal, his main and most bitter rival, had won the Monte Carlo Masters tournament a surreal seven times going into this year's edition. On Sunday, he made it eight in a row with a surprisingly easy 6-3, 6-1 triumph that ended his seven-match losing skid against Djokovic.
Last year, Djokovic skipped this event to rest from his perfect start to the year. He put off his return until the minor event in Belgrade, Serbia, a tournament his family created and owns. Djokovic then continued to build on his newfound mastery of Nadal by getting the best of him on the red clay courts of Madrid. Nadal was No. 1 at the time and had the entire world convinced he was invincible on clay.
This year, Djokovic played just two fewer matches than he had in 2011 and took two losses (both in semifinals) into the match. Yet he entered Monte Carlo instead of replicating his game plan of 2011. You have to wonder how much pressure he felt to enter one of the showcase events hosted by the tax haven that has saved him a bundle by granting residence.
It's all moot now; the damage is done. After taking seven straight losses at the hands of Djokovic, Nadal has temporarily turned the tables. He dominated Djokovic in every phase of the game in the Monte Carlo final, but if you had to single out a single area of excellence, it would be Nadal's serve.
Nadal's serve was every bit as effective back in those halcyon summer days of 2010, when he rode those lefty kickers and sliders to the completion of his career Grand Slam at the U.S. Open.
The most startling statistic served up on the day: Djokovic's inability to win more than four points off Nadal first serves (at 4 of 26, his percentage was a cringe-inducing 15 percent). Nadal made his first serve nearly 70 percent of the time, and he won 50 percent of the points when he didn't.
Those numbers, and what they say about the role of the serve in this match (and, Nadal partisans fervently hope, going forward), will give some comfort to Nadal and his fans when critics rightly suggest that Djokovic was off-kilter all day. He certainly was making more unforced errors than usual, and he looked passive and uncharacteristically dispirited throughout the match.
Most pundits put it down to the fact that Djokovic has been on an emotional roller coaster after losing his grandfather Vladimir, with whom he was very close, just a few days ago. Although distracted, he decided to soldier on and finish the tournament, saying, "I'm a professional one hand, and life goes on." Give him credit. It would have been easy for him to milk the family's loss for all it was worth, but he eschewed the drama.
For Djokovic and his minions, the takeaway from this match is that he's still the one calling the tune once the ball is in play -- and that's an edge no other player today can claim, at least not on red clay or outdoor hard courts.
Nadal did many things right Sunday, starting with his service selection and execution. But he didn't do the single thing that might enable him to turn the tide permanently against Djokovic; he didn't step into the court and establish a no-passing zone at the baseline. Those familiar heroic sprints and gets, those spectacular counterpunches and those heavy, spinning forehands that jump right up and threaten to bite an opponent were enough to get the job done.
We all know that Nole took up residence in Rafa's head last year, because Nadal himself has told us so. Whether this shellacking was enough to evict Djokovic remains to be seen. Given Nadal's record on clay, and the fact that Djokovic no longer has anything to prove at this time of year (beyond the French Open at some point), the one thing that seems certain is that this win came at a most opportune time for the eighth-time lucky champ.