Sunday, April 21, 2013

Loss To Djokovic Suggests Nadal's Clay Dominance Under Threat?

When Rafael Nadal stormed to victory at the Indian Wells tournament in his March comeback from an extended knee injury that had seen him miss close to a year's worth of action. His knees had survived the high profile hard court competition and he played the sort of tennis that made success during clay court season seem ominous.

Nadal has won seven of the past eight French Open titles. He didn't win in 2009 when injury prevented him from putting together a serious defence of his title.

However, a loss to Novak Djokovic in the Monte Carlo Masters Final, a tournament where Nadal has dominated almost without challenge in recent history, suggests just maybe that the Spaniard is a little more vulnerable in 2013.

Nadal's unbeaten run in Monte Carlo was of historic proportions. The 26-year won 47 straight matches. He hadn't lost a game in the competition since 2004.

On Sunday, not only did Nadal lose, but he was looked like he had no answer to the dominant play of his Serbian opponent, world no.1 Djokovic. The 25-year old stormed to a 5-0 lead in the first eventually taking a 1-0 lead in the match with a 6-2 decision in only 45 minutes.

The second set was a tougher affair with Nadal breaking Djokovic early, but his opponent weathered the storm and once again appeared to be dictating the pace by the time the set reached a tie breaker. Djokovic would win that decider 7-1 to take a straight sets win.

Significantly there was no real suggestion of injury from Nadal. In fact, Djokovic entered the game with more fitness question marks having struggled with an ankle ailment earlier in the competition.

It's important not to read too much into one result, but this match does clearly carry some significance. Djokovic has been the top player in world tennis over the past couple of seasons, but ultimately hasn't been able to win a French Open title yet.

The other top players in men's tennis, Roger Federer and Andy Murray, would generally consider clay to be their weakest surface and it's hard to imagine either mounting a serious challenge to Nadal at this year's French, especially considering some of their spring injury troubles.

The Monte Carlo Masters Final was the first time that Djokovic looked capable of moving Nadal around a clay court and seriously stretching him out. The clay court champion looked like he was unable to control the game or pace of the game and frequently was forced into long periods of defensive tennis hanging in the rallies.

The French Open is the final string that Djokovic needs to add to his bow. It is possible that he won't have a better chance than this May with Nadal lacking in recent match practice. Djokovic is in mid-season form and his victory on Sunday should have only wet his appetite for more successes on clay this spring.

You can follow Sebastian Egerton-Read on twitter @SebEread

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