Guillermo Coria will be remembered for succumbing to an awful case of leg cramps during a bizarre 2004 French Open final. Gastón Gaudio beat Coria for the title, a fact that reinforces a statement that has been made Ad Nauseam during the last eight years: we are lucky.
Coria had a nice career, winning nine titles and making just under six million in cash over the course of nine years. He, along with Lleyton Hewitt, Nikolay Davydenko and others filled the void until the next generation was ready to take over. There wasn’t one seminal moment that indicated they had arrived –Roger Federer was winning titles all over the place after his breakthrough at Wimbledon– but Coria’s loss to Rafael Nadal in the 2005 Monte Carlo final would mark the beginning of a streak that will never be repeated.
Eight years and 46 consecutive wins later, Nadal’s reign at Monte Carlo is over. The man who beat him consolidated his grip on Men’s tennis with a victory that underlined what it takes to beat Rafa on clay: relentless consistency. So often the challengers, Federer and Andy Murray chief among them, sought to end points quickly, knowing they could not combat Nadal’s bulldog demeanor from the baseline. Novak Djokovic can.
Djokovic’s backhand–the Gatling gun behind his victory–powered the Serb to a 5-0 lead in the first set. Broken monocles provided event staff with their first problem of the day. Monte Carlo is the ultimate outlier. In terms of tax havens, it’s the tops. During a high school trip to Europe, I along with a posse of middle class teenagers ate the best paninis in the world. Said sandwiches cost 10 dollars a pop. At the time that wasn’t an issue. When we ran out of money halfway through the trip, fine french bread was subject to derogatory language it didn’t deserve. Monte Carlo is an expensive place full of expensive people. They acknowledge this, making the whole thing a lot less awkward than it should be.
They love Federer. His elegance and grace go a long way for the locals. But it’s been Nadal that has dominated at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. The Spaniard’s proficiency on clay left competitors gobsmacked. Rallies that should end continued eight shots after the fact. A rain delay may have contributed to Nadal’s malaise early on, but Djokovic was full value for the opening set. He closed it out with another excellent two-handed backhand. Nadal retreated to his carefully arranged water bottles, briefly flashing a worried glance at his team in the stands.
The Guardian has one of the best sport sections in the world. ‘As it happens’ is a great feature, especially if you have to miss a couple games.
“Eurrgh, urg, arrghhh,” yells Nadal to each shot. “Hup, hup, hup” goes Djokovic as they rally extensively and beautifully for the first point of the second game.
Sometimes the things you love desert you. This was one of those times.
Nadal pushed back in the second set. On this day 10 years ago he broke into the ATP top 100 at age 16. His return from an eight month layoff has been typical Rafa. Speed bumps and success coupled with an unfailing ability to down play his chances. He lost one set this week before today’s final. The 26-year-old would break at 2-3, capitalizing on a fit of frustration from the number one player in the world. A third set was on the horizon.
Mental strength rivals technical ability in its importance. Tennis is not an exception. Two years ago Novak would have resigned himself to going the distance against the greatest clay court player of all time. Today he didn’t. Nadal served for the set at 6-5. Nole broke him at love and the tiebreak wasn’t close. Nadal looked like so many of his opponents over the years. Taking needless risks. Going for lines two shots into a rally.
With that, one of the greatest records in professional sports ended. It’s one tournament. Defeating the king of clay–when healthy–over the course of five sets is a monumental challenge. Either way, it’s clear where we’re heading when the French Open rolls around at the end of May. See you in Paris fellas.