Djokovic, Nadal meet again in Monte Carlo

The only appropriate song to play before the Monte Carlo Rolex Open final Sunday would be "Something’s Gotta Give."

In a matchup the tennis world has been awaiting, world No. 1 Novak Djokovic will play defending champion Rafael Nadal, and the oddsmakers must be scratching their heads. Djokovic has beaten Nadal in the past seven finals in which they have met; Nadal has won this Monte Carlo title seven straight years.

The pair ensured this fascinating encounter would grace one of the world’s most spectacular center courts by toiling through their semifinals in very awkward conditions. The sun shone brightly but couldn’t blind anyone to the real story: A lurching yacht looked more like a converted Russian frigate as it rolled on the wind-swept, white-capped waves a few meters off shore.

The wind was not only strong but unpredictable.

"It was probably one of the most difficult conditions I have played in during my career,"  Djokovic said after he had battled past Tomas Berdych 4-6, 6-3, 6-2. "It was not just the strength of the wind, but it was the changing of the direction. You couldn’t really predict from where the ball is going to come."

It had eased a fraction by the time Nadal took the court to play slender Frenchman Gilles Simon, and although the Spaniard won 6-3, 6-4, it was not as easy as the score might suggest. Simon, quick and perceptive, was at 15-40 on Nadal’s serve at 3-all in the first set but couldn’t grab his chance.

"That was most important for me," Nadal said. "After that I play with new balls, which is better for me because the bounces are higher and more favorable for me. And then I did a few things well."

Because of the state of his knees after Miami, Nadal was forced to rest completely for 15 days and practiced only three times before his first match here. So it is clear he feels relieved to have reached the final again, having won his 41st consecutive match at the Monte Carlo Country Club.

But he believes Djokovic will be favored Sunday.

"I say he’s favorite because he beat me the last seven times, not because I don’t have enough training sessions," Nadal said. "Seriously, I would like to play this match two weeks later. When one player beat another one seven times in a row — clay, hard, grass — (it) is very easy to decide the favorite."

Eventually Rafa started to relax during the news conference and laughed out loud when someone asked him if he was going to try something different in the final.

"What can I do," he replied, bending his left arm inside out like a contortionist. "Play like this? The only way to win is play more aggressive. I know that. At the end, you cannot change your game, no? I don’t have that talent to change a lot (in) my game. I have to try to return longer and have the position on the court more inside than today. If not, is impossible to hit winner against Novak from behind baseline because his movements are too good."

Nadal was also amused when it was suggested he was not playing at his best while losing to Djokovic on clay last year in Madrid and Rome.

"Don’t forget," he said, "last year, after I get injured in Australia, I play final in Indian Wells, final in Miami, champion Monte Carlo, champion Barcelona, final Madrid, final Rome, champion Roland Garros, final Wimbledon.

"So, for my level, that’s a very good season. I must be playing really well to have these results. Seriously, I don’t consider myself that good to do these results without playing my best."

The achievement makes one dizzy just thinking about it, and it is impossible to argue that Nadal had anything but a great season — one that most very good players could only dream about.

As usual, the Spaniard was trying to take the pressure off himself.

"When you lose seven, so you lose eight," Nadal said. "Doesn’t change a lot. First one is a lot. Second is 50 percent more. So now 10 percent less every time. The pain is less, too. Finally, you accept and keep fighting. If I lose, I’m going to shake the hand like the other times and go home."

He shrugged and offered a little smile. His math might be a bit off, but his fighting spirit is intact.

With Djokovic wanting to win this for his grandfather, who died Thursday, and Nadal a proud seven-time champion, both players will give their all, as always — but maybe just a little more so this time.