Thursday April 19th, 2012

Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic

Rafael Nadal has won a record seven straight titles at the Monte Carlo Masters. Novak Djokovic has beaten Nadal seven straight times, including most recently in the Australian Open final. (Getty Images)

Last week on The Toss, Chris Oddo joined to lay out his case for a more hands-off approach for chair umpires. Unfortunately for Chris, the readers disagreed, saying umpires should be more assertive in calling a match.

This week, tennis producer C.W. Sesno joins The Toss to take a look at the streaks of seven.

Today’s Toss: Which streak of seven is more impressive: Novak Djokovic's seven straight wins over Rafael Nadal, or Nadal's seven straight titles in Monte Carlo?

C.W. Sesno:  I admit, Courtney, when you gave me the honor of the first shot, I had a hard time deciding which streak was more impressive. But kicking this topic around in the newsroom, a senior editor said something to the effect of, “Djokovic beat Nadal, seven straight times. That’s all there is to it!”

But let me elaborate on that point. What Djokovic did is more than just beat Nadal in seven straight finals. He flipped the tennis narrative on its head. He turned the mentally indestructible Nadal into an open bottle of nerves, forcing Nadal to admit that a player was in his head and he had no answers. That was a first. In a relatively short period of time, the 24-year-old Serb overthrew the power-that-was and firmly planted himself on the throne.

Djokovic’s victories over Nadal have come on every surface, on every stage. He handed the King of Clay his only two losses on the dirt in 2011, winning in straight sets in Rome and Madrid. He became the first player not named Nadal or Roger Federer to win Wimbledon since 2002. In earning a taste of the grass (literally) with that win over Nadal in the final, Djokovic took over the No. 1 ranking, the only man to ever secure the No. 1 ranking after winning Wimbledon. A year after losing to Nadal in the 2010 U.S. Open final, Djokovic got revenge in 2011, beating Nadal in the final just two days after saving two match points against Federer in an epic five-setter. In 2012, the two met again the Australian Open final, and Djokovic again prevailed, this time in the longest Grand Slam final in history.

What I’m getting at is that Djokovic’s recent dominance over Nadal is a representation of his exceptionally dominant 2011, a year in conversations for the best single season ever.

Now, all that said, winning a top-tier tournament seven straight times is by no means a small feat of its own, and it’s not like Nadal was just beating a bunch of chumps over the years in Monte Carlo. So Courtney, since I had such a hard time deciding which streak was more impressive, I’ll gladly let you take the floor and convince me I’m wrong.

Courtney Nguyen: I can endeavor to try, Chris.

This is like comparing green apples to red apples: Both accomplishments are jaw-dropping, but whichever you deem more impressive is simply a matter of taste. No doubt that Novak's seven straight wins over Nadal -- on every surface and in the finals of the biggest tournaments -- is huge. But I do think Rafa's seven straight titles at Monte Carlo is the more notable achievement. We're talking about an insane level of consistency for seven years at a big tournament against the best in the world. And Rafa hasn't even made it look close. He's the only man to win a tournament seven straight years, and in fact, no one has ever won five straight editions of a Masters tournament.

Nadal was just 18 years old when he won his first Monte Carlo title in 2005, beating 2004 Roland Garros runner-up Guillermo Coria in the final, and from there he's been on a tear. He beat Roger Federer in the final three straight times before the tournament became a non-mandatory in 2009 and Federer made it an optional part of his schedule. Since then, Nadal has only lost two sets and he's beaten Djokovic, Fernando Verdasco, and David Ferrer to win the titles.

Don't we always give dominance over a long period of time a nod over dominance in a flash? Sure, Djokovic has owned Nadal for a year, but Rafa has owned the field for seven. His consistency in Monte Carlo is particularly notable because he's rarely come into the tournament on the heels of a win. Remember, Nadal has never won Miami and in fact, much like this year, he's often arrived in Monte Carlo with questions swirling about his game, confidence, and health. Yet for the last seven years, he's been able to silence the whispers and turn his season around on a dime.

Sesno: I agree with you on a few points, Courtney. First, both accomplishments are flat-out incredible, and choosing one that is more impressive is obviously a personal and subjective debate. But The Toss wouldn’t be fun if there were a clear right or wrong.

For the most part, as you say, dominance over an extended duration holds the edge over a surge of success. But that said, what will the history books say about these two streaks? To be fair, history will look at Djokovic’s streak of wins over Nadal as just part of the whole story here: His 2011 season was out of this world. But beating the top-ranked (for the first half of the season, anyway) player in final after final in the biggest tournaments defined that breakthrough. It’s tough to make the argument that history will look more favorably to Nadal’s Monte Carlo reign.

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In fact, I view Nadal’s dominance in Monte Carlo slightly similar to Federer’s dominance in Basel: The conditions set up perfectly. Federer has won his hometown event five times and, putting aside that it’s a 500 event with a weaker field, Federer simply plays well indoors. Monte Carlo is the first clay event of the season, and while other players are trying to find their footing on the dirt, Nadal needs a few days and he’s rolling on his best surface.

And let’s not forget, Nadal was the hottest player coming into 2011. He won three Grand Slams and four other titles while surging to take over the No. 1 ranking after winning Roland Garros. Before 2011, Nadal owned Djokovic in their head-to-head, leading 16-7. That Djokovic was able to turn things around so drastically after what was arguably Nadal’s best season is simply remarkable.

Imagine this scenario: Djokovic dominates the tour last season, wins 10 titles including three majors, finishes his season at 70-6 and is expected to come out firing on all cylinders. Then, perennial contender (but hardly a favorite) Andy Murray tweaks his diet, improves his fitness and stamina while winning the year’s first major. Then, he downs the top-ranked player in a hard-fought final at the year’s first Masters event and immediately backs it up by beating him in the final of the next one. Riding a wave of confidence from these wins, Murray has passed arguably the greatest of all time in the rankings. Then he’s passed arguably the greatest of this era in the rankings. Then he wins Wimbledon, topples the world No. 1 to take over as the official alpha male on the ATP Tour and holds the spot well, winning the year’s final major under the New York lights, again against an increasingly frustrated ex-No. 1. A shot at redemption in the next season’s first major comes up empty as Murray outlasts his indefatigable foe in a record-setting final.

What a story that would be, no?

Nguyen: Monte Carlo is similar to Basel? Surely you jest, Chris.

Sure, conditions suit him at Monte Carlo. Just like they do anywhere there's red clay on the ground. But unlike Basel, Monte Carlo isn't some Podunk tournament designed to look like Rafa's woodshed. Nadal has had to beat the best players in the world every year to win Monte Carlo. He beat the defending Roland Garros champion and runner-up in 2005. In five of the last seven years he's had to beat at least two top 10 players in order to lift the trophy. In the one year that he didn't face any top 10 players, 2010, he beat three quality clay-courters to win -- Ferrer, Juan Carlos Ferrero and  Verdasco and didn't drop a set all tournament. All I'm saying is Monte Carlo isn't a tournament to thumb your nose at. For many years, it had the same quality field (though smaller) as Indian Wells, Miami and Rome.

Each streak needs context and the context gives weight. As you say, Djokovic's domination of Nadal is part of a larger narrative, one that speaks to his complete domination of the tour for almost a year. His 2011 was absolutely incredible and it completely shifted the tennis landscape. But Nadal's seven-year domination of Monte Carlo is only a small part of another bigger story: Rafa's domination on clay. Going into this week he was 231-18 on clay for his career -- a whopping 93 winning percentage -- and 32 titles. He's won the French Open a record-tying six times, and holds the record for number of titles in Rome (5) and Barcelona (6). But even at all those events, Rafa has never been able to do what he's done in Monte Carlo.

I think there's some recenct bias in favoring Djokovic's seven straight wins over Nadal's seven straight Monte Carlo titles. What Djokovic did feels bigger because it's more recent and it seemed to have come out of nowhere. And you're right, given where their careers seemed to be at to start 2011, Djokovic's repeated wins over Nadal have been shockingly impressive. We've become so accustomed to Nadal's success on clay that his achievements on the surface have become expected rather than surprising. But that shouldn't take away from his streak in Monte Carlo. What he's done there has never been done before, whether at a Masters tournament or a smaller tournament with weaker opposition.

Who knows, we may have to revisit this debate if Djokovic ends the streak this week in Monte Carlo and extends his run to eight straight wins over Nadal. But for now, Rafa's ownage over the field at Monte Carlo still carries more weight. You decide: Vote in our poll above and sound off in the comments for your take on the more impressive feat.

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