In a match that felt far closer than it's ultimate scoreline, No. 1 Novak Djokovic defeated No. 4 Rafael Nadal 6-3, 6-3 to advance to the final of the Monte Carlo Rolex Masters on Saturday. The win was Djokovic's fifth over Nadal on clay, though Nadal still leads their clay court rivalry 14-5 and their overall head-to-head 23-20. Djokovic plays No. 8 Tomas Berdych in Sunday's final. Berdych defeated Gael Monfils 6-1, 6-4 in the other semifinal.
Three thoughts on Djokovic's big win:
1. Novak Djokovic is the man to beat right now, no matter the surface: Historically, the slim margins that separated the ATP's Big Three broke down almost perfectly among surface. Nadal owned clay, Federer owned the grass, and Djokovic owned hard courts. As their games ebbed and flowed each man might edge their nose in front for a short time on any given surface, but over time they always reverted to the norm.
But the way Djokovic has improved his game, steadily amping up his aggression levels -- even today we saw him rushing the net on clay against Nadal -- he's playing the best level across the board. He passes both the numbers and eyeballs tests.
The reigning Wimbledon champion is now 27-1 since a rusty display in his first tournament of the year. That one loss came to Roger Federer on a lightning fast court in the Dubai final. He has otherwise beaten Federer in the Indian Wells final, Murray three times this year (twice in finals), and now fended off a very good challenge from Nadal on clay. In the 79 sets he has played this season Djokovic has served up a bagel or breadstick in 20 of them. In Monte Carlo he has not lost a set en route to the final and has lost more than three games in a set just twice. He's now on a 16-match win streak.
2. Rafael Nadal should come away with confidence: How often can we ever say that after a straight-set loss on clay? But Nadal had his teeth in the match before a lack of focus in the seventh game in each set spelled his doom. Those long, protracted games are the ones that have spelled the difference for Nadal in the past against Djokovic, but as he continues to play his way into form the Spaniard lapsed.
With Djokovic serving at 3-3 in the first set, Nadal earned break point at 30-40 and couldn't convert, with Djokovic putting in a huge effort to save break point with incredible defense:
Nadal saved game point after game point in the four-deuce game but Djokovic ultimately held. The Serb then responded by breaking Nadal in the very next game at 30 and then serving out the first set. The second set saw Nadal stumble again in the seventh game. Serving at 3-3, Nadal earned a 40-0 lead before faltering. He made a poor decision on a forehand down the line, double-faulted, and then was burned by a Djokovic return winner to find himself at deuce. Nadal couldn't get out of this game either, saving two break points but finally succumbing on the third.
After the match, Nadal said he felt fatigue creep in after having to play at such a high level against Djokovic to stay in the match. He was also coming off a three-set grinder the day before against David Ferrer. "As I say yesterday, maybe I don't know if it was too early, then when you get a little bit tired, you play a little bit shorter," said Nadal. "Then is impossible against him no? If I'm able to play like the beginning hours, I can do it, then is a different story."
This was the best sustained level Nadal has played since winning the French Open last year. He is clearly off Djokovic's level. If the French Open was next week Djokovic would have to be the favorite for the title. But Nadal walks away from Monte Carlo knowing he's not as far he thought he was and he has four weeks to get better.
3. Pressure shifts to Djokovic: As he's shown over the last 10 months, this is a less fragile Djokovic. On Sunday he will be going for his fourth straight ATP Masters 1000 title. If he wins he will have won the last six big ATP titles, including the Australian Open.
Can the Serb sustain his high level and fend off Nadal & Co. to win the French Open? Djokovic has always been more dangerous as a hunter rather than the hunted. Nothing fuels him like having a chip on his shoulder. But if he keeps on winning over the next few weeks, particularly if those wins come at Nadal's expense, he'll be the favorite in Paris. That's an entirely different set of mental marbles.