Sunday April 22nd, 2012

Rafael Nadal

Rafael Nadal won his first title of the year after dismissing Novak Djokovic for his eighth straight Monte Carlo title. (Valery Hache/Getty Images)

You can't blame anyone for the massive hype surrounding the Monte Carlo final on Sunday. It was No. 1 Novak Djokovic vs. No. 2 Rafael Nadal. The Serb was riding a seven-match winning streak over Nadal and is making a hard charge to complete his career Grand Slam at Roland Garros next month. Nadal, on the other hand, had won the Monte Carlo title a record seven straight years. The last time these two met they took tennis to new limits, battling for nearly six hours before Djokovic finally prevailed in a record-setting Australian Open final. So what would Sunday's final bring?

As it turned out, not a whole lot. Nadal played near-perfect tennis, incorporating the changes he has been vocal about since last September, and Djokovic, whose grandfather died earlier this week, was flat in every way possible. The result? A 6-3, 6-1 beatdown of Djokovic courtesy of the King of Clay.

Here are four takeaways from the match.

Monte Carlo is Rafa's house. No one comes into Nadal's house and bullies him around, not even Novak Djokovic. We debated last week in The Toss which streak was more impressive: Nadal's seven straight titles at Monte Carlo or Djokovic's seven straight wins over Nadal. That debate resulted in the closest reader poll we've had on The Toss, a near dead-heat. Now that Nadal has grabbed his eighth straight title, I think it'd be a tough argument that his streak in Monte Carlo is less impressive. For the fourth time in eight years, Nadal won the title without dropping a set and beat the No. 1-ranked player to do it (he defeated Roger Federer when he was No. 1 in 2006, 2007 and 2008).

Nadal had much more to lose here than Djokovic. Another loss to the Serb would have been devastating given how important Monte Carlo has always been in getting Nadal's confidence where it needs to be for his clay run. But aside from winning, what should buoy Rafa's confidence even more is that he played the right way. Djokovic was nowhere near his best, playing fast and loose with his groundstrokes, seemingly unable to muster the intensity to wrench back control of the match when Nadal began to roll. Unable to get himself to focus and engage in the rallies, Djokovic was gripping and ripping in hopes that he could hit through Nadal. That tactic may have worked in the past, but not this time. As the unforced errors piled up, Djokovic began to smile wryly, an acknowledgment that it wasn't his day.

Nadal probably didn't have to play his best to beat this Djokovic. But he did play near his best. Nadal was getting the ball deep on Djokovic -- something he's been unable to do consistently in their past seven meetings -- and played well near the baseline to dictate the points. But perhaps the biggest change from past matches was his serve. In their last two matches, in Melbourne and at the U.S. Open last September, Nadal has struggled to hold serve, and he's complained about his inability to get free points. All that changed Sunday. In eight service games, Nadal lost a total of 10 points and served at 68 percent.

So while it would be easy to chalk up this result to a drastic drop in Djokovic's form, the fact is Nadal finally played a match the way he needs to play against Djokovic. That blueprint should pay dividends in their future encounters.

Rafa is still the man to beat on clay. The Big Four are all about matchups: Novak owned Rafa, who owns Federer, who owns Novak, and they all own Andy Murray (sorry, Andy). These anomalies lead to whispers here and there about the significance of certain matches, certain wins. Flash back to the 2011 clay season and it was all about Djokovic. He beat Nadal on the dirt in Madrid and Rome, and who knows what would have happened at Roland Garros if Federer didn't step in and take him out in the semis. That Nadal didn't have to knock off Djokovic in Paris last year provided room for questioning whether Nadal -- at this moment -- was still the best player on clay.

Well, it turns out that's a pretty stupid question. He is. Period. It was nice to be reminded of that.

The win wasn't earth-shattering. Even though the title was both record-setting (his 20th Masters Series title passed Federer's mark of 19) and streak-snapping, does it feel like that much has changed? I confess, I thought this match would be a huge turning point for both players regardless of how it turned out, but Djokovic's flat play took the wind out of everyone's sails (well, except Rafa). I'm not 100 percent convinced that Nadal has "solved the Djokovic problem," nor do I think the result necessarily sets the table for the rest of the clay season. Maybe we'll get a better matchup in Madrid, Rome or Paris, but for now we'll have to wait and see how this result propels their rivalry forward. Novak Djokovic is human. A heartfelt tip of the cap to Djokovic, who thought about withdrawing from the tournament after hearing of his beloved grandfather's death on Thursday morning. As a guy who doesn't hide his emotions -- both good and bad -- it was tough watching him scratch his way to three-set wins over Alexandr Dolgopolov and Tomas Berdych. Having had to miss his funeral, there was something poetic about the idea of Djokovic's winning the Monte Carlo title in tribute to his grandfather. But sport doesn't work that way. You still have to go out there and hit forehands and backhands, and when your mind is exhausted, all the desire in the world won't always get it done. Subdued and somber, Djokovic put on a brave face this week. His grandfather would have been proud.

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