Rafael Nadal won his eighth straight Monte Carlo Masters last week, becoming the first player in history to win a tournament 8 consecutive times and only the second to win any tournament 8 times (Guillermo Vilas won Buenos Aires 8 times as well). This record is a tremendous milestone in any career, and both Nadal and his fans should celebrate and appreciate it as such.
This also marks the first time in 8 tries that Nadal has beaten Novak Djokovic. Nadal had lost 7 consecutive matches to the Serb, all of them in Grand Slam or Masters 1000 finals. There was clearly a mental edge in Djokovic’s favor in this matchup, though it did not show itself as much in this year’s Australian Open final as it did in parts of 2011. Still, with Rafa winning this match he now has that monkey off his back and can stop worrying every time he plays Djokovic.
The question, however, is what does this mean for the rest of 2012. I have always believed that players can react to any situation in both a positive and negative way. They can use something as motivation to do better going forward or they can dwell on it and let it harm their level of play. And I’ve also always believed that it’s impossible to ever really tell how any player will react to any given situation. The best we can do is make an educated guess based on how that particular player has reacted to similar situations in the past.
The most common example of something like this is when an opponent is slightly injured. A player can either recognize it and adjust his game accordingly to exploit it; or he can become distracted and lose his edge during such a match (think back, for example, to Albert Montanes against Fabio Fognini in last year’s French Open). And the same player can react to different situations in different matches differently. Tennis is such a mental sport and it really is hard to guess how a player will react to any situation mentally.
So this brings us to now. Djokovic clearly had a mental edge over Nadal until last week. Djokovic also had every reason to not have been focused on Sunday’s Monte Carlo final, seeing as his grandfather had just passed away three days earlier. Nadal knew both of these things. Nadal also throttled Djokovic in a match in which it was clear to every unbiased observer that Djokovic’s mind was not really on that match. That being said, Nadal looked like he was playing a very high level of tennis. So was Djokovic’s distraction the cause of Nadal’s high level or was it the other way around? The easy answer would be the former, given what was going on in Djokovic’s personal life. However, there is no real way to know.
Similarly, there is no real way to know what Nadal and Djokovic will take from this match moving forward. Basic logic will tell you that this definitely eased whatever mental stranglehold Djokovic had over Nadal. Djokvic dominated Nadal on clay last year, yet Nadal beat him much worse in Monte Carlo than any of Djokovic’s wins last year. Still, both players have to know that there were probably some extenuating circumstances in this win, and you have to wonder how much (if at all) that will be in the players’ minds moving forward.
The point of all of this is that we can’t expect matches between this pair on clay to suddenly all be blowouts in Nadal’s favor. That would be foolish. However, it would also be foolish to think that this Monte Carlo match meant nothing and to expect future matches to go the same way as their 2011 matches. Also, we have no idea how much or for how long the death of Djokovic’s grandfather will affect his level of play. Will it add motivation for Novak or will it cost him concentration? These are all things to think about and be aware of as we head deeper into the clay season and towards Roland Garros.