Rafael Nadal broke the recent hegemony of Novak Djokovic on Sunday when he lifted the Monte Carlo Masters trophy for a record-breaking eighth time. The world number two is the only player in history to have managed the feat, but it is the present that the Mallorcan will be most interested in. Djokovic, the world number one, assaulted Nadal’s position at the top of the ATP tree last season, hungrily availing himself of the Spaniard’s crowns at Wimbledon and the US Open and launching the most concerted onslaught he has faced on his beloved European clay.
The Serb, who still calls Nadal the “Clay Court King,” shook the foundations of the Spaniard’s fortress by relieving him of his Rome and Madrid titles. Only an inspired Roger Federer prevented Djokovic from a chance to usurp the world number two on a court he practically owns: Philippe Chatrier at Roland Garros. The 2011 French Open was one of just three titles Nadal claimed last year, his lowest return since 2004. All three came during the clay court season: Monte Carlo, Barcelona and in Paris.
Before Sunday, Nadal had not beaten Djokovic in seven attempts, all of which were finals and included this year’s Australian Open and Masters tournaments in Miami and Indian Wells ahead of the 2011 clay season.
Nadal roared in delight after he thundered down an ace to wrap up a 6-3, 6-1 win in 78 minutes, but he will be aware that he was not facing Djokovic in his usual mindset. The Serb learned of the death of his grandfather, who he described as “my hero,” during the tournament and admitted to “emotional ups-and-downs” in his quarterfinal match against Robin Haase last Thursday.
Nadal, though, arrived in Monte Carlo with just two days of training under his belt following treatment for recurring tendinitis in his knee. Nevertheless, the problem did not prevent him from claiming his 20th ATP top-tier title, one more than Federer and John McEnroe but still two short of Ivan Lendl’s haul.
“He’s had a difficult week,” said Nadal of his opponent. “But neither can he always be impeccable. I’ve played against him when I’ve been in a similar situation before. He played with ups-and-downs and I was very solid, especially on serve. To win a big tournament like this, which is maybe my favorite, gives me a lot of confidence.”
The next stop on the Tour is Barcelona, where Nadal will seek a seventh title in eight years. Fernando Verdasco won the tournament last year and is in the same half of the draw as the number two, who will open against either Guillermo García-López or Olivier Rochus. Then come Madrid and Rome, the Masters 1000 tournaments ceded to Djokovic last year. In Paris, Nadal will aim to become the only player in the Open Era to win the French Open seven times.