For the second straight year Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic clash for the Monte Carlo Masters title. A week ago when the draw was released, we knew Nadal would be playing on this final Sunday, but Djokovic? Novak entered as a major question mark with ankle to even play the event, but after two awfully shaky wins early on the Serb has suddenly found his footing this weekend.

Yesterday, Djokovic eased past Jarkko Nieminen and today he all but blanked a listless Fabio Fognini 6-2, 6-1.

“The way I felt in the first match, if somebody told me I’d be playing the final, I’d be very happy to hear that,” Djokovic said. “I was taking it match by match. After every win, I feel very content and very fulfilled because knowing the circumstances I was in, every win is big.”

Djokovic of course lives in Monte Carlo, which is part of the reason he played. That said, let’s be honest, it’s really Nadal’s event.

Rafa has dominated Monte Carlo like no other player has at any tournament that I can remember. Nadal’s won eight straight titles there and 46 matches in a row. In fact, there is no active player in the rankings right now that has a win over him in Monaco – Guillermo Coria is the only player and he’s long gone.

If there’s hope, Rafa’s been a little leaky in the his last two matches.

On Friday, upstart Grigor Dimitrov broke twice and took the second set thanks to a litany of Rafa errors. Today, Nadal did tighten his game up considerably but then stunningly blew a 5-1 second set lead to Tsonga. Nadal hung on to win 6-3, 7-6, but choking such a lead is cause for concern, at least I think. It signals he’s not as sharp as he should be, after all, it is his first event in a month.

So both players come into the final certainly not playing at the very height of their tennis powers – I can wait seven weeks for that – still it’s an intriguing final nonetheless, between the two best players in the game right now.

On the surface (pun intended), Nadal’s got the huge edge here, and really anyone who doesn’t have a dog in this fight would be foolish to pick against him. The two will meet for a 34th time tomorrow and Rafa’s won 19 of them including the last three, all last year and all on the dirt.

In the 2012 final it was all Rafa cruising to a 6-3, 6-1 win over Novak who, understandably, wasn’t anywhere near his best after the passing of his grandfather days earlier.

This time around Novak is still nursing that bad ankle, but I actually give him a fair chance here. With very few expecting him to win (let alone even play this event!), I think the pressure is off a bit.

By playing, Novak’s shown the ankle is holding up and he’s gotten some valuable clay practice. There’s no real No. 1 pressure nor a streak nor a overwhelming need to win Monte Carlo. The goal of his clay season is to complete the career Slam next month at Roland Garros. How he performs tomorrow will chart the course.

And since they haven’t played in 10 months, I look at it as almost an exploratory match for Novak who’ll perhaps poke and prod and see where Rafa’s at, using that knowledge for later down the road when the stakes are far greater. And if he can grab a win, great. If not there’s still a bigger prize down the road.

“I need to have a very optimistic mindset in order to get a win,” said Djokovic. “I’m not going out there to play my best; I’m going out there to win. That’s how I’m going to feel tomorrow. I lost to him twice in the final here in Monte Carlo. It’s always a big challenge when you play a top player, especially Rafa, who hasn’t lost here in eight years. I think that says enough about his record and qualities.”

For Nadal, he’s got the streaks and the reputation on the line, and he’s the big favorite in this one. So the pressure goes his way. And he doesn’t want to slip to his main rival right at the start of the clay season.

Often when these two meet we get long, grinding points with both goes pushing, or usually exceeding, the time limits. Fortunately or unfortunately, because of Novak’s ankle and Rafa’s knees, I don’t foresee an epic three hour plus death match like we’ve grown accustomed to. Instead, maybe some controlled rallies with quicker points? It is the start not the finish of the clay season so I just can’t see these guys really pushing it to the max.

Then again, what if Novak really is 100% healthy. What if he then wants to grind Rafa down, wear him out and put those darn knees at risk for the remainder of the clay season and French? It’s a fascinating plan: make Nadal work extra, extra hard with hopes it pays off the second Sunday in June.

With both guys so up-and-down this week, it’s hard to single out one key. When they do play I like to look at Novak’s second serve return game. Novak can really jump on Rafa’s weak second and gain control of the points. If Rafa’s serving poorly, Novak should be able to dictate.

In the end, though, I just think this title is more important to Rafa. He is the King of Clay, after all. Last year he got the snowman. But I have a hunch he has a taste for a little more.

*The pick: Nadal in two*

Tennis Channel will have the match live at 8am ET.

**SUNDAY MONTE CARLO SCHEDULE**

COURT CENTRAL start 2:00 pm

[1] N Djokovic (SRB) vs [3] R Nadal (ESP)

[1] B Bryan (USA) / M Bryan (USA) vs J Benneteau (FRA) / N Zimonjic (SRB)

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