The best rivalry in tennis resumes Sunday as the King of Clay, Rafael Nadal, meets World No. 1 Novak Djokovic for the Monte Carlo Masters title. The top two players in the sport square off the first 31st time, their second such encounter along the scenic setting of the Mediterranean sea.
Nadal has won 16 times again the Serb including a three set win in the 2009 Monte Carlo final. However, in recent times it’s been all Djokovic. Novak has dominated Nadal winning his last seven against the Spaniard all in finals. That’s a seven title swing in favor of Novak, plus slam victories at Wimbledon, the US Open and this year at the Australian.
And on clay, Djokovic whipped Rafa twice last year at Madrid and in Rome, both in straight sets snapping a string of nine straight lost to Nadal on the dirt.
For Nadal, there has to be some hurt there.
Coming into the match, neither player is looking particularly sharp this week. Maybe it was the swirling Saturday winds, but both guys weren’t at their very best earlier today. Djokovic, who’s battled far more than just tennis this week, overcame a set deficit to turn away Tomas Berdych 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 in his semifinal.
“That’s probably one of the most difficult conditions that I played in, in my career, really,” said Djokovic. “It was not just the strength of the wind that was blowing, it was the changing of the direction. You couldn’t really predict where the ball was going to come from. It was really tough. But in the end I managed to hold my nerves and play well in the third.”
Then Nadal stepped up and really had a tussle against Gilles Simon. The Frenchman, who lost the same court two weeks ago to John Isner, fought Nadal tooth and nail before coming up just short in the end 6-3, 6-4.
“It is always difficult to play against Gilles,” said Nadal. “He is always smart on the court and he knows how to play tennis. I’m very happy. It was a very difficult victory for me. So it’s fantastic being in another final.”
Nadal has now won 41 consecutive in Monaco, 15 straight on clay as he bids for an unprecedented 8th Monte Carlo title i n a row Sunday. And I’ll stick with my original pick and say he gets it.
Rafa hasn’t won such hardware since the French Open, he hasn’t beaten Djokovic since 2010 and with his incredible streak at stake, he has to have this win. He has to! This is virtually do or die. Another loss here could really ruin Rafa.
“My feeling is I have much less to lose than him. I have everything to win,” said Nadal. “That’s the most important thing. That’s the only positive thing about losing seven times. The next matches, you only have to win. You go to the match knowing that the normal thing is lose but trying the best to change situation. That’s what I going to try.”
But in an unfortunate twist, the passing of Djokovic’s grandfather during the week may provide that extra fuel and added incentive for Novak who is really gearing for the French Open. He hasn’t played his best and he’s looked sluggish at times. But what a cap it would be to close out the tournament by winning win for his grandpa. And we’ve seen top athletes find that inspiration before and win one for a passed loved one – Brett Favre and Michael Jordan come to mind.
And in two of his last three matches Djokovic fought back from losing the opening set to claim victory. That’s being mentally tough.
“It will be the most difficult match for me in this tournament,” said Djokovic of facing Nadal. “He’s the player to beat here. He’s the player to beat on clay courts. He’s the best ever in the history of the sport on this surface. It’s the ultimate challenge. I need to play well. I need to play well from the first to the last point. I cannot have ups and downs. I cannot afford that against Rafa. I’m aware of that. But why not believe that I can win?”
As I’ve said before, tennis is often about matchups. If Djokovic is in form, something we haven’t seen much of this year, he’ll beat Nadal. He’s won seven straight against Nadal and it’s no fluke. Not only is he firmly inside Rafa’s head, because of his backhand, defense and return, he gains an even greater advantage on the clay.
We saw it last year. Rafa hits a weak second serve, Djokovic pounces immediately gaining control of the point. Maybe Rafa will up his delivery Sunday – he’ll need to do better – but I’m going to say after an emotional week Djokovic won’t have enough left and won’t be at his max level to thwart Nadal on the clay.
Bad knees and all, Rafa’s in better form of the two. I know Novak lives in Monte Carlo but the center court really belongs to Nadal. And most importantly Rafa just needs this win more. With all the data going Djokovic’s way I’ll take Nadal here in straight sets. Snowman complete.
Tennis Channel has live coverage at 8am ET. And if history holds the match will be going well into lunchtime on the east coast. It should be a good one. Vamos!
SUNDAY MONTE CARLO SCHEDULE
COURT CENTRAL start 2:00 pm
 N Djokovic (SRB) vs  R Nadal (ESP)
 B Bryan (USA) / M Bryan (USA) vs  M Mirnyi (BLR) / D Nestor (CAN)
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