An interesting reaction that seemed to emerge in the wake of Novak Djokovic's commanding victory over Rafael Nadal at the Monte Carlo Masters was the sense that it was an uneventful one. Even, daresay, one that was expected.
The human mind never fails to surprise, and for those with a vivid memory, it will only be too clear how outrageous, even blasphemous such thinking might have been even just a year ago.
No one disputed for very long the sheer ineffable dominance of Nadal on clay. Victory on it was almost foregone for so many years. Just being on court was enough to make opponents lose, and it happened sometimes on a far more real and physical way than it did for Federer—of whose "aura of invincibility" so much has been said.
Still, as of April 2013, it is no longer blasphemous to think of Nadal losing a clay court final. As a matter of fact it happened in February, when Nadal lost his opening final to Horacio Zeballos as he sought to wipe off nearly a year of tennis inactivity in Chile.
No doubt Nadal's drawn-out layoff after Wimbledon last year—and injury woes—must have played a role in the result Sunday.
Taking nothing away from his three impressive tournament victories this year thus far—his three-set win against Juan Martin Del Potro snapped an almost three-year, hard court tournament drought. There was some evidence at Monaco this week of vulnerability and a lack of confidence.
Nadal was shaky against Grigor Dimitrov in the quarters and nearly let slip a 3-1 lead in the second set against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the semifinals.
However much Nadal seemed to cope physically during the week, he slipped mentally at crucial moments and succumbed, one suspects, to the growing "Nolitis" he had suffered severely seven times in 2011—the inability to find his way past the disdainful resistance of Djokovic.
Nadal's shot selections aside or the fact that his forehand seemed to be played too defensively too often; Djokovic deserves all the credit he has earned from what will surely go down as a famous victory.
It is not common to have the chance to snap an eight-year-long run of dominance in a tournament, and Djokovic did in playing some of the finest tennis he has ever played on clay. To put it simply, he was the No. 1 on court in name and actuality—always a step ahead of Nadal, always keener than the Spaniard to take the initiative.
The scary thing about the Serbian's performance was that he lived up to being precisely the sort of player one had envisioned, circa 2008, one would need to be to prove the perfect counterpoint to Nadal on clay.
Someone who was willing to blast at every opportunity, not in the manner of Robin Soderling's victory over Nadal at the French in 2009, but in the manner of Djokovic Sunday—drilling forehands and backhands with such brutal, chilling accuracy and efficiency, wresting every point so viciously from the Spaniard that he would barely find time or space to reposition himself.
At 5-0 in the first set, it looked almost—gasp—easy.
The remarkable thing about the match—and Djokovic's seemingly unbeatable plan of attack—was that Nadal still managed to find time and moments to reassert himself in the match.
At 1-1 and 2-2 in the second, he seemed to find his range, and he played more of the sort of tennis we, for eight and a half Monte Carlo tournaments, had come to expect. No game plan is ever foolproof against Nadal, and at least one left the final Sunday with the sense that no one is ever likely to get a complete hold on him on clay.
He is far too good and has had far too great a career on clay to ever be thought truly second best in this era.
But it is equally true that nothing can last forever—a point Nadal with idiosyncratic humility made only too clear before the tournament—and so it proved true Sunday.
The tide seemed to turn at 6-5, when Nadal maybe had finally weathered the Djokovic storm. But the Serbian tennis king took the opportunity presented by seemingly infelicitous occasion to win the next 11 of 12 points and the title. No drop in play, too, can last forever.
The man he beat is certainly the best man to ask about enduring hardship and misfortune, if only because Nadal has won so many of his titles with the acute awareness of their essentialness to success.
Such a noble, stoic outlook on tennis might now, however, be tempered by the increasing conviction that he stands no longer untouchable and supreme on his beloved clay, because, for now at least, the reign of Nadal at Monte Carlo is no more.