The major theme of the past eight months in tennis went largely unnoticed and perhaps even unrecognized because of continuing uncertainty about the condition of Rafael Nadal's knees, the struggles of Andy "will he or won't he" Murray and speculation about how much more Roger Federer still has left to give to the game.
It was easy to overlook the fact that when Nadal took a break after losing in the second round of the 2012 Wimbledon tournament, in order to tend to his aching knees, we were at a high point in the Nadal-Novak Djokovic rivalry. Just weeks earlier at the French Open, Nadal had racked up his third consecutive win over Djokovic in the span of just six weeks on Euroclay. It was Nadal's response to having lost his previous seven meetings to Djokovic (all in 2011).
On Sunday in Monte Carlo, Djokovic emphatically reminded Nadal that they still had some unfinished business. He halted Nadal's 46-match winning streak at the event and prevented Nadal from winning his ninth consecutive Monte Carlo title with an impressive and somewhat unexpected win, 6-2, 7-6 (1). Djokovic also crept closer in the head-to-head record, which now favors Nadal by a slender 19-15.
I write "unexpected" mainly because Monte Carlo has always been a gimme for Nadal, and last week Djokovic still appeared hampered by an ankle he rolled back during the previous Davis Cup week. Djokovic struggled mightily in his first two matches in Monaco, while Nadal did what he does best: He crushed people (Grigor Dimitrov was the lone exception) mercilessly, all the while shuffling his feet and with downcast eyes mumbling that he was not the prohibitive favorite.
Maybe Rafa knew something we did not: that the big story in tennis, while put on hold, is still the Nadal-Djokovic rivalry. It certainly looked as if Djokovic knew that, as well, and it just whetted his appetite. That's a great sign for the rest of the year.
It's funny how Djokovic is still suffering somewhat from the third-wheel status he held for a few years, while the Nadal-Federer rivalry was still at the forefront of most fans' minds. You would have thought that the exceptional record Djokovic accumulated in 2011 would have permanently elevated his status, but the slight decline in his 2012 results, carrying over into this year, worked against him.
Many said Djokovic isn't the player he was in 2011, among them a healthy number of embittered Nadal and Federer fans. To which Djokovic more or less responded with results that proclaimed, "No, I'm not, but I'm still better than anyone else out there."
Djokovic is 26-2 this year; Nadal is 21-2, while Murray is 20-3 and Federer is 13-4. (By the way, any news yet from the search party looking for that Swiss climber of great mountains?) But Djokovic owns the bragging rights. He's already got three titles, one on each of the three major surfaces, and he's won the only Grand Slam event played thus far. And Djokovic has beaten Nadal and Murray in their only meetings this year.
The Monte Carlo final wasn't about Rafa's knee or Nole's ankle. It was about Nadal's elbow and throat -- and Djokovic's spirit. Nadal did not appear ready for the level of competition Djokovic provided, perhaps because the latter is the only player on the planet who seems completely comfortable playing against Nadal on red clay. Nadal senses this, and it brings out what might be Nadal's unacknowledged Achilles heel -- his innate caution.
There are technical aspects to Djokovic's advantage in the tale of the tape, as well. Djokovic's superb ability to redirect the path of the ball, particularly to go down the line, is a critical weapon for him -- and that two-handed backhand is firm enough to really put sting into the shot. His relatively flat shots also take time away from Nadal and open up the court more easily and quickly. Djokovic simply uses a lot more of the court than does Nadal; it's almost as if Djokovic uses the doubles alleys and Nadal has to stick within the singles lines.
Well, it's easy to read too much into a single match. But this appears to be a huge win, demonstrating that Nadal still feels mentally off-balance after his long layoff, while Djokovic is ready to pick up right where he left off because, he might say, "times a-wastin."