April 23, 2013
A lot of people were tipping Rafa Nadal for glory at Roland Garros…until Sunday.
That was when we saw one of the most fearsome sights in sport – Novak Djokovic in full flow – hungry, brutal and ready to hunt his man down from every angle.
The consequences were quite shocking. Pretty soon the new Rafa was in tatters; his crown had not just slipped but fallen, crashing onto his favourite clay surface with a thud.
For eight years he had ruled Monte Carlo – unbeaten in 46 matches there. But when he met Novak at the weekend, poor Rafa realised just how much more he needs to do if he is going to return to his very best.
Will it ever happen for Nadal again at a Grand Slam? You have to wonder, but it is worth remembering just how far he has already come this year. Rafa hasn’t just made a comeback, when many thought he might be finished due to that dodgy knee. He has won tournaments, he has made real progress, he is very much back in the mix.
Now Nadal will go away and work harder still, to bring his best game to Roland Garros and then Wimbledon.
We all hope he continues to be patient with his own progress, that we see even more of the warrior we know and love this summer on clay and grass.
But we are already lucky enough to be watching the complete player, the ultimate sporting machine – Djokovic.
The first set in Monaco was almost embarrassing in its one-sided brilliance. Novak could have won it 6-0, it seemed he could do no wrong. The punchier Rafa became, the more his defensive guard was exposed. The backhand fell to pieces under the pressure of Novak’s constant bludgeoning.
As it turned out, Rafa did well to take two games off the Serb before they started again.
Nadal’s stubborn fighting spirit gave him the upper hand for some time in the more even second set. But when Djokovic had to take it to another level at 5-6, he did just that. The ease with which he closed out the match in the tie-break was breathtaking.
Where was it all coming from? Novak told us afterwards. ‘This is my home tournament, I know all the people here.’
Imagine what it must have felt like, to live in Monte Carlo, to be the best tennis player in the world, and then to get beaten every year by Nadal in your own back yard.
Years of pent-up anger and wounded pride took Djokovic to heights in that first set even he couldn’t have imagined. As soon as he sensed this wasn’t quite the same Rafa on the other side of the net, he got ruthless.
Novak’s opponents should thank their lucky stars Roland Garros isn’t his home tournament – or Wimbledon. But it must be hard not to fear him now.
Would anyone bet against “Superman” Djokovic this summer? After what we’ve just seen? Not me.