Despite a brave fight back from Jo-Wilfried Tsonga from 1-5 in the second set, Rafael Nadal rolled on into his ninth consecutive Rolex Masters here at the Monte Carlo Country Club, winning 6-3, 7-6 (3).
As Novak Djokovic duly took care of Italian Fabio Fognini 6-2, 6-1 later on a chilly, windy day on the shores of the Mediterranean, an old rivalry will resume Sunday afternoon.
Nadal is always disarmingly honest when facing the media and he drew laughter when he was asked if he was happy to be playing Djokovic again. “No,” he said with a big grin. “I am not this kind of player that is stupid (enough) to say ‘I want to play against the best.’ No, I don’t want. I want to play against another player that is easier.”
The underlying truth to that piece of honesty relates to the fact that Nadal is still, in his own mind, feeling his way back after seven months out of the game with his knee problems last year. It is, as he said, "fantastic" to have reached the final of all five tournaments he has played since returning to action (winning three so far) but anyone watching his practice session with Uncle Toni in the morning would have noticed that some serious work was being done.
The forehand, in particular, seemed to be a source of concern and some 45 minutes was devoted to that one shot. There might also have been a problem with his back, a possibility that was given credence by the fact that he rolled his first serve in for most of the match. If he had been going for it full blast he would never have ended up with 80 percent of first serves in court.
It should, of course, have been over much quicker. Nadal led 40-0 on his serve at 5-2 in the second set but contrived to miss all three match points as Tsonga started swinging like a man with nothing to lose. It was, significantly, a forehand error from Nadal at deuce that gave the big Frenchman his chance and suddenly he went from "playing very bad to playing very good" as Rafa put it.
But the "very good" didn’t quite last through the tiebreak. At 3-3, Tsonga had a little rush of blood to the head and served and volleyed behind a second serve — a specialized kind of suicide against Nadal on clay. Rafa immediately sent a forehand pass searing down the line and soon the breaker and the match was his by 7-3.
Djokovic didn’t quite go so far as to say he wished he was playing someone other Nadal. But he has no illusions. “Whenever you play Rafa, you know what to expect,” he said. “You expect the toughest challenge possible on clay. I’m ready for that. I’m very happy that physically, mentally, emotionally I have been improving as the tournament was going on. Of course, I will have to be at the top of my game.”
The Nadal-Djokovic rivalry is now one of the longest running rivalries in the sport. It began in 2006 when the Serb had to retire hurt after two sets of their quarterfinal match at the French Open. Things became somewhat more intense after that, reaching a crescendo at the Australian Open in 2012 when Djokovic won the title 7-5 in the fifth set after six hours on court. Both players nominated this match as the most memorable of their 33 meetings.
Nadal leads that series 19-14 although Djokovic had run off seven straight victories over his rival by the time he staggered off court in Melbourne. Since then Nadal has won three times, all on clay, including last year’s final here. Their last ten meetings have all been in finals.
As ever, it promises to be a riveting encounter. Djokovic is clear about how to approach the match. “I need to have a very optimistic mindset in order to get a win,” he said. “I’m not going out there to play my best. I’m going out there to win.”
If he does, he will have ended a 46-match winning streak for Nadal on these courts. As he knows, it is not going to be easy.