Rich With Portent

Monte Carlo Masters, Final

(1) Djokovic d. (3) Nadal, 6/2 7/6

The Monte Carlo Masters final was off to an unpromising start when, moments before its protagnists could take to the court, the clouds carried through on an earlier threat and hurled their contents down upon the Mediterranean coast. Now that we know how the match turned out, we can say that this was a downpour rich with portent. Djokovic Nadal MC 2013 -2It turns out the future is much easier to predict once it has become the past. At the time, there was merely a prevailing view that the heavier conditions would favour world number one Novak Djokovic more than the eight-time defending champion Rafael Nadal.

The horizon beyond the world’s prettiest centre court contracted and dissolved in the rain. Everyone’s view was obscured. It can’t have been pleasant for those in the stands, exposed to the sky, most of whom had paid rather a lot to be rapidly drenched. Still, they had an advantage over those of us watching on television, exposed to Sky. None of us were watching tennis, but at least they were gazing at the stars. Apparently the guy who Red Bull dropped from orbit was there. You can’t buy star power like that. At least, I can’t.

Those of us of detained elsewhere were stuck with Barry Cowan and Greg Rusedski, who, sadly, have never been dropped from orbit, although I suspect I’m not alone in wishing someone would rectify that. (It’s a Kickstarter project begging to happen). Rain delays are a real problem for broadcasters, especially when they occur before a ball has been struck. In the normal course of events the broadcaster already sets aside sufficient time before the match for an exhaustive intro, so that interested viewers can be adequately prepped. Today Sky’s intro included a lovely on-site chat between Annabel Croft and Tommy Haas, but otherwise involved Messrs Rusedski and Cowan expounding at soporific length precisely why either, but not both of the excellent tennis players could win this match. Cowan favoured Djokovic, Rusedski preferred Nadal.

Rain delays during the run of play enable the assembled experts to at least recount what action has occurred, and extrapolate further trends from it. Cowan, armed with an iPad, has lately succumbed to the allure of freeze-framed analysis, whereby he’ll pause the action at a crucial moment in order to reveal what is about to happen, thereby proving his capacity to predict the past. Unfortunately Nadal and Djokovic had so far only ambled onto court then scurried off, and not even Cowan was able to adduce much from this. Consequently, they were invited to expand on their already expansive pre-match predictions. They’d been directed to kill time, but apparently failed to realise that this is merely a figure of speech. Marcus Buckland, Sky’s indefatigably professional anchor, aged before my eyes.

Luckily the rain never became incumbent, and before long the part of France in which the Monte Carlo Masters takes place was drenched in sunlight. Conditions lightened considerably, and the court remained dry (it was watered before play began). The players returned, and Sky Sports’ lurid London studio was left behind. Indeed, Sky itself was left behind, as the telecast switched to the syndicated world feed, with the excellent Nick Lester presiding. This was an upgrade. The players, meanwhile, had returned to the court, completed their warm-up, and were ready to play. Anticipation could not have been higher.

No one predicted what happened next. Djokovic, playing with a magnificence rare even for him, shot to a 5/0 lead, breaking Nadal twice. Five times in that sixth game he held a set point, threatening to serve Nadal his first claycourt bagel in six years. We were duly reminded of that previous occurrence, which had come in the final of the Hamburg Masters in 2007. Once again, the omen seemed clear – that was the match that ended Nadal’s fabled eighty-one match claycourt winning streak. It was helpfully reiterated that Nadal hadn’t lost in Monte Carlo for a decade, compiling a forty-six match winning streak at the event, covering a period that had witnessed three different popes, the successful reboot of the Batman franchise, and the death of Albus Dumbledore. He had also won eighty-one straight matches in April. Presumably Nadal was acutely aware of all these milestones, and consequently redoubled his efforts. He saved all those set points, and then a few more, holding serve and then breaking back.

Djokovic’s backhand was impregnable and his movement was outstanding, a combination that famously creates problems for Nadal, although the deeper reality is that it creates problems for everyone. Djokovic looked uncannily like that version of himself from two years ago, the terrifyingly complete version that constantly defeated the Spaniard in Madrid, Rome, and everywhere else. Yet there were signs towards the end of the first set that the Serb’s focus had begun to waver. The winners were now alternating with errors, and he was having more difficulty avoiding Nadal’s forehand. Nonetheless, he broke again to take the set, on Nadal’s third double fault. We viewers were whisked back to the Sky studio, where Rusedski blithely reiterated his faith in Nadal’s eventual triumph. It was suggested that the contours of this final were reprising those of the Miami decider from a few weeks ago. Those among us who believed that match had contravened laws both corporeal and spiritual fervently hoped otherwise.

Still, Rusedski’s faith in Nadal hardly seemed misguided. He was certainly the stronger player as the second set commenced. It looked as though Djokovic had spent himself on those magisterial first five games, and his reserves were looking increasingly low. He was broken in the third game. If history was any guide, this was the moment at which Nadal would commence his rampage. But it never happened, which constituted perhaps the largest surprise of the afternoon. Somehow his technical ascendancy at the start of the second set never translated into sufficient confidence that permits him to gallop away with the match, as he usually does. Of course, a great deal of that was due to Djokovic, who even though he couldn’t sustain the form of the first set remained imposingly complete. He broke back. Then Nadal broke again, for 6/5, and came round to serve for the set.

From there, it was a rare and unlikely capitulation from the Spaniard. He lost eleven of the last twelve points, including being broken to love and losing the tiebreaker 7-1. Djokovic, with an astonishing final effort, returned to his erstwhile level, dispatching flat groundstrokes to the corners, and constantly leaving Nadal with nowhere safe to hit. Cowan later whipped out his iPad to demonstrate this at some length. A final Nadal error, and it was all over.

As had happened in Hamburg six years, Nadal’s mighty and unprecedented streak ended with a whimper not a bang, as he succumbed wearily to a rampant world number one. Afterwards, the rampant world number one’s hands rose fleetingly to his collar, but he quashed the inclination to tear his shirt apart. Perhaps this was out of respect for Nadal, although it may well have been because Carlos Berlocq has kind of ruined it for everyone.

Everything that has a beginning has an end. As canned wisdom goes, it barely even rates as a truism. On the other hand, it’s no less true despite having served as the by-line for the third Matrix film, in which it was intoned by an oracle whose main trick, a la Barry Cowan, was to foreshadow outcomes that were already patently obvious to the audience. There was no good reason to think Nadal would go on winning Monte Carlo forever, even if it was unclear how he’d ever lose. If he was to lose within the next three or four years, it would probably be an upset. And so it proved. Today’s result was an upset, although it was by no means a colossal one.

Readers may have picked up that the leitmotif running through this article is that of pundits being wise after the fact. Some are now declaring that today’s result proves that Nadal was never the favourite to win this tournament. Apparently they don’t quite understand what the term means: it isn’t a guarantee of victory, but merely an assertion that you’re less likely to lose than anyone else. In Nadal’s case, of course, it’s also a millstone around his neck, and one that he attempts to cast off at every opportunity. Some have suggested that today’s loss will do him a service by lightening the load, but that’s probably wishful thinking. After all, winning this title every other year has hardly proved detrimental to Nadal’s claycourt season. I’d say, on balance, he’d rather have the trophy.

Alas, for Nadal, the trophy now belongs to Djokovic, whose coach, you may recall, had advised him to skip the tournament. He didn’t, obviously, and now insists it was the best decision of his life. By winning Monte Carlo he has now claimed eight of the nine different Masters titles, which is more than anyone else, and fourteen of them overall, which puts him at fourth on the all-time list. It’s hard to imagine he won’t add to that tally by Roland Garros. Indeed, if he sustains this form, by Rome he might well be the favourite.

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