The emotional impact of a traumatic week caught up with Novak Djokovic on Sunday in Monte Carlo.
After the sad loss of his grandfather, and the additional heartache of missing Saturday’s funeral, Djokovic tried to summon his competitive instincts for another Herculean tussle against Rafael Nadal. Understandably, he failed.
You need to field your ‘A’ game against Nadal in Monte Carlo, where he has now won 42 matches on the bounce. But Djokovic was not operating in the usual alphabet. He admitted he could barely hit the ball in court as he went down 6-3, 6-1 in just 78 minutes.
“I definitely don’t want to take away anything from Rafa’s win,” said Djokovic. “But it’s a fact that I didn’t have any emotional energy left in me. I just wasn’t there. I’ve never been caught up in this kind of emotional situation before. It’s been a very difficult week for me to go through mentally. I won three matches since the news. I mean, I think I did pretty well.”
At the start of the week, Nadal had been the man with the more doleful manner – the result of the usual aches and pains from his fragile knees. In the event, he skimmed through the tournament as smoothly as the local yachts on their way to the Marina, never even dropping a set.
On Sunday, Nadal was particularly pleased with his serve. Normally a weak point, it had such pace and pinpoint delivery - despite a swirling wind - that Djokovic won only 10 points against it in the whole match.
Such dominance is remarkable enough against the world No?1, but all the more so when you consider that Djokovic was coming off seven consecutive victories in their head-to-head rivalry.
“It was very important to break the losing streak,” said Nadal on Sunday night.
After the match, Nadal was asked whether he felt he had been playing the real Djokovic, or a pale imitation. “In other finals that I played against him, I wasn’t my real best,” Nadal replied, with a shrug. “But the real Rafa is not only when I play well. If I take that for myself, the same for the others.”
How much weight should we accord this result, as we look forward to the rest of the clay-court season? Nadal definitely played better, and smarter than he had against Djokovic in their two European meetings last year.
But the match was never seriously contested, so its psychological impact will be smaller than if they had duelled all the way to the finish line.
The bookmakers were already adjusting their odds last night for the French Open, which Djokovic needs to win if he is to complete the grand slam. It might be a good time, then, to back him.
“I feel good on the court game-wise,” he said on Sunday. “I just need to regroup and to rest, to get things straight in the head.”
As for Nadal, he has now reigned in Monte Carlo since April 2005, the same month when Prince Albert II acceded to the throne. His eight consecutive titles here represent the longest winning streak that any player has put together at a single tournament, with the next best being Guilermo Vilas’s six in Buenos Aires.
As Nadal fired down an ace to clinch the match, and clenched his fists in celebration, it was easy to forget that he had not won a single title since last year’s French Open, 10 months ago. The expression on his face, as he bit into the flower-shaped silver trophy for the photographers, was one of delighted relief.
Meanwhile, Great Britain’s bid to return to the World Group II stage of the Fed Cup got off to a poor start after Elena Baltacha and Anne Keothavong both lost their opening rubbers.
Baltacha was beaten 6-1, 7-5 by Sweden’s Johanna Larsson, while Keothavong was no match for Sofia Arvidsson, losing 6-1, 6-4. “I’m really disappointed, but there’s no going to the corner and sulking,” Baltacha said.