(April 20, 2013) -- As the week has worn on, perspectives have shifted ever so slightly with regard to tomorrow's Monte Carlo Rolex Masters finalists.
Many wondered--the World No. 1 himself included—if Novak Djokovic's recently injured ankle would be strong enough to keep him in the hunt for his first career title at Monte Carlo.
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Meanwhile, pundits and pedestrians alike seemed convinced that Rafael Nadal, eight-time champion and holder of a 46-match winning streak at Monte Carlo, would force all challengers to submit with merely a whimper.
But over the course of the past two days Nadal's opponent's have done more than whimper (one even took a set, mind you), while Djokovic has shown no sign of the ankle injury that seemed to hamper him in his first two matches at the year's first Masters event on clay.
Djokovic was ruthlessly efficient in Saturday's 6-2, 6-1 victory over Italian Fabio Fognini. The Serb's second straight-set win in a row lasted only 52 minutes, and after spending over four hours on court on Wednesday and Thursday, Djokovic can take solace in the fact that he needed barely two hours on court to dispatch his quarterfinal and semifinal opponents.
Fognini, who had dispatched top ten players in consecutive matches for the first time in his career, seemed to have very little magic left for Djokovic, and his game went downhill rapidly as the match progressed. For sure it was due to an emotional fatigue, but credit is also due to the pressure that Djokovic brought from the backcourt all match long.
Nadal, who had breezed through the early rounds at Monte Carlo, losing only nine cumulative games in thrashings of Marinko Matosevic and Philipp Kohlschreiber, nearly had the unthinkable happen to him on Friday, when 21-year-old Grigor Dimitrov became only the seventh player to take a set from him at Monte Carlo.
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Nadal would rally to conquer the Bulgarian with a late break in the third set, but when it was said and done, witnessing that close shave might help Djokovic envisage doing the same on Sunday. And maybe (as Djokovic undoubtedly hopes) it might have served to put some doubt in Nadal's mind, too.
Nadal had a slightly easier time of it in Saturday's semifinal against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. He took it in straight sets, 6-3, 7-6(3), but a furious fightback from the Frenchman to force a second-set tiebreaker after trailing 5-1 reinforced the notion that there might be ways for a world-class clay-courter like Djokovic to get into Nadal's kitchen, even in Monte Carlo.
But when Nadal was pressed on Saturday, true to form he came up with the goods. He smacked a down-the-line forehand winner at 3-3 in the tiebreaker and reeled off the next three points to close the door on the sixth seed for his 18th consecutive win.
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Still, Tsonga was pleased with his effort, and even though he failed to take the tiebreaker, he feels his late rally might aid him in future battles with Nadal.
“It is better to make it difficult for him like I did today in the end because then I can think maybe next time, if the conditions are better, I might do better,” he said.
Nadal was frustrated at times by the big-hitting Tsonga, but that hasn't curbed his voracious appetite for wins on clay. And there is the theory that the close calls on Friday and Saturday might make him stronger rather than damage his psyche for the final.
"It's great for me to be in the final," said Nadal, who upped his record to 8-3 against Tsonga with the win. "It's fantastic news, playing five tournaments in a row after injury, being in five finals in a row is great. I'm very happy for everything. We'll see tomorrow. It will be very tough.”
With Nadal showing no signs of difficulties with the knee that kept him out of action for seven months, and Djokovic's ankle apparently in good stead, the prospects of a blockbuster final on the clay (not just on paper) appear to be very good indeed.
"I know I have to play better than what I did today and yesterday to try to win tomorrow,” said Nadal. “I have to play more aggressive. These kind of matches are special all the time. I am very happy to have the chance to play these kind of matches another time."
Nadal, who owns a 19-14 career edge over Djokovic, including 7-2 on clay and 2-0 at Monte Carlo, reversed course on a seven-match losing streak to Djokovic at Monte Carlo last year, and since then the Spaniard has won three straight against the World No. 1, all on clay.
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But this meeting will be their first since Nadal has made his return to tennis in February. In some ways it will represent a jumping off point for a new phase in the storied Nadal-Djokovic rivalry.
Early in the week it seemed ludicrous to think that Djokovic could actually make any inroads against Nadal on clay while hobbled by an ankle injury. Why face Nadal at less than 100 percent and give the Spaniard more fuel to make another historic clay-court romp through Europe? Apparently, Djokovic and his team have their reasons.
With the ultimate prize of Roland Garros looming in the distance, the Serb will try to seize Monte Carlo, the first and perhaps biggest domino in the clay-court season.
In typical fashion, Djokovic relishes that challenge.
"Whenever you play Rafa, you know what to expect," said Djokovic. "You expect the toughest challenge possible on clay. I'm ready for that. I'm very happy that physically, mentally, emotionally I have been improving as the tournament was going on. Each day I feel better on the court, more confident.”
He added: "Of course, I will have to be on top of my game. I will have to be focused and motivated from the start to the end in order to have any chance of winning against Nadal. I need to have a very optimistic mindset in order to get a win. I'm not going out there to play my best; I'm going out there to win. That's how I'm going to feel tomorrow."
With a massive mountain to climb, Djokovic will need all the optimism he can summon. Mourning the loss of his grandfather at Monte Carlo last year, he was crushed in the final, winning only four games.
"I didn't make him play at all,” said Djokovic at the time. “I just was out there trying to put the ball in the court. It's been a tough week, not just for me but for everybody in my family," he added. "We're going through this together. In the end, I played the final and I'm really happy for that."
Just playing the final won't be enough for Djokovic on Sunday. Nor will it be for Nadal.