Monte Carlo is where it will really get serious for the Rafael Nadal-Novak Djokovic rivalry. It's the first stop of the European clay-court season and longtime watchtower to Nadal's Roland Garros fortress. But this time Djokovic comes in as the defending champion and a three-match winning streak versus Nadal.
Will Monte Carlo be another stop with more of Djokovic's conquests, or will Nadal dominate his beloved red clay with an historical lesson that stretches back nearly a decade?
Nadal must defend his immortal legacy on clay at all costs and Djokovic is his biggest nemesis.
Djokovic desperately wants a French Open Musketeers Cup for himself and Nadal must be removed.
We are going to express what is on the line for both players at Monte Carlo with a back and forth exchange of how each player could claim the rivalry edge from Monte Carlo to Paris. The voices expressed on behalf of Nadal and Djokovic (in italics) are representations of the author's points and counterpoints. This is a mock meeting early one morning at the practice courts in Monte Carlo.
The Stare Down
From 2011 to 2012 Djokovic defeated Nadal in seven straight championship finals, including two clay-court titles and three Grand Slam victories. It was the best streak of his career. In 2014, Djokovic should feel that his best tennis will defeat Nadal.
Suppose Djokovic heads to a practice court, decked out in his warm-ups and carrying a few rackets and a large bag. He is eager to get in some work and arrives ahead of his practice team. There he sees Nadal, who is toweling off after a hard regimen. They exchange pleasantries but quickly speak their minds as tennis fans could only wish to hear.
Djokovic's tone is direct and confident. I played my A-game in Miami last month. When I play my best against you, I win. You know it and I know it. My groundstrokes, backhand and returns are quicker, deeper and put you back on your heels. You must hope that I am not at my best. I whipped you 6-2, 7-6 at Monte Carlo last year after coming off a severe ankle sprain.
Nadal coolly picks up his fluid formula and takes a sip. He sets it in the same spot in front of his bench, then picks up his water bottle and drinks from that. Time for some truth. A lot of good winning Monte Carlo did for you, Novak, and I'm not here to talk about injuries. You tanked out at Madrid, Rome and the French Open. Meanwhile, I won four straight clay-court titles including my eighth French Open title. Nadal tries to stifle a yawn.
This is all too evident for Djokovic. He unzips his racket case, removes one of the weapons and spins it in his hand. OK, Rafa, you did eke out a five-set semifinal win at Roland Garros in hot, dry slippery conditions. They should have watered down that dust bowl. You got the breaks.
Better work on those overhead putaways, Novak. Nadal doesn't even glance up as he continues folding his towel. Of course, I've been defeated on clay, but the season is long. It requires patience, faith and heart. That is why I will be the last man standing.
Nadal looks up and continues ticking off points with heavily-taped fingers. My footwork is better than yours on clay. Your rhythm and plan depends on outslugging me. Clay gives me extra time on defense and more time to wind up my forehand. I am the proven champion here, and that plays in your head during tight points.
Past Clay-Court Resume and Resilience: Strong Advantage to Nadal
Djokovic had been chasing Nadal and Roger Federer for several years until he took over tennis in 2011. The challenge became more difficult into 2012, with other champions winning their shares, but he continued to be the most consistent player in tennis. Then he fell behind Nadal after three straight losses in 2013, including the U.S. Open championship.
But now Djokovic has stormed back with three straight wins over Nadal, dating back to last October. He has picked up four Masters 1000 titles and the WTF year-end championship. Nadal has not won a tournament that big since September.
He begins to bounce lightly on his feet, smiling at Nadal. At Miami, I proved again that I own you on hard courts, Rafa. That's a 14-7 head-to-head record on hard courts and seven of nine wins since 2011. I'm closing in on the 22-18 career edge you still hold, and I'll be waiting in the Monte Carlo final; well if you get that far.
Ha, nice Bernard Tomic reference, Nadal approves. You better hope you defend Monte Carlo, because you have 1,000 ATP ranking points wrapped up in that. When I drop you in the final that will be an 800-point swing added on to my No. 1 ranking. And I would have the clay-court season in front of me. This is another world. Hard courts are irrelevant.
Djokovic reaches into his bag and triumphantly pulls out his Monte Carlo trophy. But, Rafa, you will agree that whoever wins another one of these will have the momentum and right to be the favorite for the French Open. I could get that No. 1 ranking back by June.
Fine by me if tennis fans establish who is the favorite, Novak. I've won often enough as the underdog, but it is true that I must lift my game and play better, no?
Current Tennis Playing Form and Rivalry Edge: Solid Advantage to Djokovic
Monte Carlo is not the ultimate triumph, but it is an important forerunner to the French Open title. What can we expect from both players in their clay-court ambitions?
Nadal gets up, zips on his jacket and grabs his bag. Djokovic is sizing him up, but Nadal cuts off his intentions. Not yet, Novak. No preview here. We play each other soon enough. Get your practice. You will need it.
Djokovic is stretching his arms and wants a few more words. It's true that he has learned that Monte Carlo does not guarantee the French Open title, but that this time he must build his own clay-court fiefdom. OK, Rafa, you are the greatest clay-court player in history, maybe the best player ever, and possibly the greatest fighter in tennis—next to me. But if I attack from inside the baseline and run you side to side, I will win anywhere. I'm ready to do this for three of five sets in June.
Nadal returns a stoic expression. You fight great, but I'm a great fighter. And you will need to knock me out or I will keep coming. I will never stop. I will track down every ball and force you into more errors. Your serve will be weakened on clay and I will set up better forehands on both sides of the court this time. But hey, you are my toughest ever rival and most difficult to attack.
Djokovic nods his head but finishes with a sensible reminder: Of course, there are many other players looking to win these titles. Last year, Grigor Dimitrov troubled you at Monte Carlo and took me out at Madrid. Milos Raonic and John Isner could serve us off the court. Tomas Berdych might become clutch. (Djokovic and Nadal both snicker.) And I would rather not get into another war with Stanislas Wawrinka. Djokovic shrugs his shoulders a little too tensely. Of course, we can't forget about your rivalry with the Swiss Maestro.
Nadal seems deep in thought. Roger Federer is my rival?
Future Outlook of Monte Carlo and French Open: Pick 'Em