Whatever sadness attended the dethroning of Rafael Nadal as the King of Monte Carlo on Sunday after a reign of eight years and 46 consecutive matches unbeaten should be tempered by the acceptance that Novak Djokovic was the most convincing of insurrectionists.
The world No1 battered the champion's faltering backhand (21 unforced errors was not a pretty sight) for an hour and 52 minutes and sealed a 6-2, 7-6 victory with an unreachable forehand in the corner as his old rival collapsed in the tie-break. Had it gone to a third set, the result probably would have been the same.
Both carried injuries – Nadal's chronically weak left knee probably more burdensome than Djokovic's seemingly rehabilitated right ankle – and they had each shown vulnerability during the week in the first Masters 1000 of the European season. But it was still a compelling final, one delayed by rain and concluded in glorious sunshine, certainly more competitive than last year, when Nadal dismissed Djokovic 6-3, 6-1 and went on to beat him again in the French Open final five weeks later.
The 2013 edition was closer and, although he admitted tiring earlier than before, Nadal said he had enough time before Roland Garros in which to reach the right energy level. "We have Barcelona, then we have Madrid, then we have Rome. It's more than enough time."
Djokovic measured his celebration, respectful of an opponent he described as "the greatest ever on clay", but there were moments when it was apparent he was nearer his peak. He, too, looks towards Paris. "The first six, seven or eight games were unbelievable. It's the best I can play on clay. This trophy could not come in a better moment," he said. "It was difficult the last two months. I've been through some ups and downs emotionally, physically. But I'm where I want to be."
Djokovic mentioned earlier it was a year since his grandfather died – and he came here nursing a rolled ankle picked up during Serbia's Davis Cup win over the United States two weeks ago.
After lingering over Court Central for 50 minutes, the rain moved on down the coast and warm sun bathed the clay. After another 47, a cloud hung over the champion's head, despite a spirited struggle to contain his rampant opponent and his protestations afterwards that the first set was closer than it looked.
Anna Maria Parera, Nadal's mother, watching from the royal box, did not look impressed when Djokovic went to deuce in only the second game, nor when Rafa hit wide to drop his serve. The Serb raced to 5-0 with an ace before Nadal saved five set points to avoid being bagelled. Nadal has lost sets to love three times on clay – against Guillerma Coria, here, in his first final in 2005, Gaston Gaudio (Buenos Aires, '05) and Roger Federer (Hamburg, '07) — and he was tigerish in hanging on.
He was down 5-1 to Dimitrov in the quarter-finals here (probably the match of the tournament) and admitted he had yet to hit a good rhythm. It did not arrive for him yesterday until the second set, but his motor was still knocking rather than purring.
Djokovic – who won eight straight games against Nadal in the final of the French Open last year, before rain interrupted his progress and the Spaniard regrouped to take the title – knew the counter-attack was coming.
When Nadal held to love for the first time to level at the start of the second, his fans sat more comfortably in the afternoon sun. They were further encouraged 10 minutes later when, after a sustained bombardment that kept him behind the baseline, Djokovic cracked, his tired forehand drifting into the tramlines as he sought to eke another error out of Nadal's backhand.
The break lifted Nadal, who fought through deuce to go 4-2 up but his weaker flank let him down again and Djokovic broke for 4-all.
By the time they reached the tie-break, the king's crown was wobbling, and Djokovic's game was much the stronger.
"All the motivation and positive energy came from you, over so many years," Nadal told the packed Court Central after passing on his crown to Djokovic, who addressed the crowd in French – as any Monte Carlo resident would.
He might just be starting a reign of his own at this lovely venue.
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