Rafael Nadal was finally given some competition on the red dirt when Novak Djokovic took a set off him in the Monte Carlo Open on Sunday. But the final score was in favour of the Spaniard, 6-3, 2-6, 6-1, for the historic tournament.
The first ATP Masters clay tournament of the year gives a very good indication of how comfortable the Mallorcan resident will be for the rest of the season. This is his home.
Nadal has made history by winning this tournament for the fifth consecutive time. No other player has won so many in a row.
The match started with Djokovic racing to a quick 3-1 lead in the opening set. Nadal then showed why he has been unofficially anointed the best clay court player of all time, taking the next five games to seize the opening set.
The crowd did not raise any eyebrows when the Serbian called the trainer over after he had been broken in a particularly long game in the first set. After the first set was captured by Nadal, he probably went over to his chair thinking that he had the third seed's number in the final.
Djokovic, who is shy, seemingly lacks confidence, and has been facing the wrath of his fans and the pundits for not living up to his potential, just showed what he could do when he played his best tennis since his first Grand Slam victory at the Australian Open 2008.
Djokovic took Nadal out of his comfort zone and started dominating the game on Nadal's favourite surface in the second set. He stood his ground at the baseline and was moving Nadal from side to side.
He was rejuvenated and traded shots with Nadal. He approached the net more confidently as the game progressed and won all nine of his points approaching the net in the second set. The high looping backhand was being returned with interest.
The crowd, now firmly behind Djokovic, boosted his morale, and he suddenly looked like a wounded tiger that meant business against the raging bull.
After breaking Nadal twice in the second set, he aced him twice in the final game to take the match to a decider. Barely a fist pump after winning the set, Djokovic was feeling good about his chances for the win.
The first three games of the third set went over 40 minutes, and Djokovic could not convert the break point opportunities which he had on a consistent basis.
This resulted in Djokovic launching some "F bombs," throwing the racquet on the turf, looking to the heavens, and feeling helpless as Nadal hit screaming winners off the backhand when the Serb approached the net.
Novak was pushing Nadal to play defensively, but when Rafa broke Djokovic, the Serb started feeling the heat. Nadal broke Djokovic twice in the third set, and the Spaniard raced to a 5-1 lead to serve for the championships.
Nadal comfortably served for the set and registered a hard-fought win over the 21-year-old. The joyous and forceful closure of eyes to supress the tears showed what the victory meant for Rafael as he fell on the clay.
Djokovic should definitely be proud of his accomplishment after knocking off a set. He came up with a definite plan and believed that he could take on the four-time champion. Even though he lost, a warm smile at the net for the champion showed the mutual respect they have for one another.
This victory will definitely be sweet for Nadal after winning his first clay tournament as the No. 1-ranked player. He grew up on the red dirt and is starting his run on this surface as the defending champion yet again.
While this win is pleasing for the Spanish camp, Djokovic definitely showed that Nadal can be beaten on clay, a thought which was not so common before the season commenced.
Younger players, like Murray and Del Potro, should be facing Nadal more confidently from here on in than they normally would.
A certain Swiss who is currently No. 2 ranked in the world would probably love to duplicate the approach shots that Djokovic showcased on Sunday when he next faces the Spaniard.
Nadal was extended to a tie break in his semifinal encounter with Murray. People said that Murray did a good job when he gave a fight at the trailing end of the second set, but now it's Djokovic who has stolen a set from Nadal with a spirited fight back after losing the first set.
Are these the first visible signs that, as Nadal evolves and dominates the game incredibly well on other surfaces, he is going to lose his stranglehold on the sliding surface?
Answer coming to theatres near you when the suave-looking Spaniard in the sleeved shirt readies himself to defend his Roland Garros title in the last week of May.
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