Streak snapped, but rivalry lives on

Novak Djokovic cracked a forehand winner and the King of Clay no longer reigned in Monte Carlo. After eight straight titles and a streak of 46 matches, Rafael Nadal finally lost a match at the Rolex Masters for the first time since 2003 when he went down Sunday to the world No. 1, falling 6-2, 7-6.

“It’s sport, it’s not a tragedy,” Nadal said afterward, smiling. “I was playing the No. 1 player in the world. I lost after eight years without losing here. That’s the more normal thing that can happen, I think.”

A year ago, Djokovic, in an emotional state because of the death of the grandfather he idolized, lost to Nadal in the final 6-3, 6-1. As he looked to the heavens today, there was no need to ask to whom he was dedicating this victory.

And there were other reasons for his joy, too. “I live here, I spend a lot of time at this club,” he said. “For me it is the most beautiful club in the world. I love the view, I love the people. I cannot be happier than I am at this moment.”

It was, in many respects, a remarkable performance by the world No. 1. He had only made the final decision to play last Tuesday because of the ankle he had injured while playing for Serbia against the United States in the Davis Cup quarterfinal two weeks ago at Boise, Idaho.

“If someone told me 10 days ago I’d be winning the trophy, I wouldn’t think it was so realistic, to be honest,” Djokovic said. “But I went through pain, I went through a big challenge and I knew after yesterday’s match that I had a big chance to win against Rafa if I was on the top of my game. The first six or seven games were unbelievable. It was the best I can play on clay. It’s the only way to win against Rafa.”

Djokovic had five set points at 5-0 in the first set after this devastating start and Nadal was teetering on the brink of losing a love set to his great rival for the first time. But the Spaniard not only survived all of them but actually broke Djokovic’s serve in the next game only to throw it all away by double faulting on the eighth set point when he served at 2-5.

Perhaps only Nadal on a clay court could have stopped Djokovic at this stage. Inspired by the crowd and the feeling that he could handle any situation on this court that has brought him such incredible success over the years, Rafa raised his game and broke to lead 4-2.

But it was unsustainable against a player who was pushing the great defender ever further behind his baseline and forcing him into errors with early strikes as he moved forward in the court. The break back came immediately, but at 5-5 Nadal tested Djokovic past his limit with a series of carefully sliced backhands and then found himself serving for the set at 6-5.

But he never had a chance. Three forehand winners, topped off with one from the backhand flank, saw Djokovic break back to love and continue this last surge of dominance through the tie-break, winning it 7-1 as Nadal made three bad errors on the forehand – the stroke he had been practicing so assiduously throughout the week.

However, Nadal refused to get too down on himself.

“I think for me it was a positive week,” he said. “Without much preparation I was able to reach the final, play a few matches. This is going to help me be fit for the next weeks. Hopefully I can play another great week in Barcelona.”

Nadal then admitted that he had been nervous playing Djokovic when the Serb was on his great unbeaten run two years ago and surprised Nadal by beating him in Madrid and Rome.

“Seriously, against Novak in 2011 I felt the tension a few times,” he said. “I felt a little bit anxious at some important moments. I didn’t feel that way this afternoon. I fought back after a tough first set. At the moment I am not bad mentally. I am fresh. I enjoy being on the tour another time.”

After this, the next few weeks on European clay are going to be fascinating with two more Masters 1000 events coming up in Madrid and Rome before the big showdown at Roland Garros.

Who will prevail, Djokovic or Nadal? It’ll all be decided soon enough.