The first flash of a racquet at the Monte Carlo Masters has occurred; the hugely anticipated clay-court season has officially begun, and so have the mind games with it.
All eyes for the next month or two will be firmly cast on the two protagonists, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic – their annual tussle for clay supremacy is due to be the best ever, the most intriguing ever.
The reigning and the only true ‘King of Clay’, Nadal, is perhaps realising that his main rival Djokovic is the closest he will ever be to dethroning him on the dirty surface. As a result, the Spaniard has resorted to mind tricks to win back an advantage.
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He’s won a record nine French Open titles (eight in Monte Carlo too) and is arguably the greatest ever clay-court player, but the 28-year-old has been quick to play down his chances of success this year after suffering an injury-plagued 12 months or so.
“I don’t have pressure this year,” he said as the Monte Carlo Masters kicked-off.
“I’m not the favourite for anything. I have been playing worse than the rest of the rivals of mine. The pressure is not for me… I am arriving here with the motivation to do something better than what I am doing.
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“The most important thing for me is to feel well on court again, feel confident, feel I am improving,” he said. “I was improving every week before Miami, and in Miami I played bad… If I’m able to find the confidence, to find the tennis here on clay, then it makes everything a little less difficult.
“I am working to be playing well as soon as possible, and if I didn't believe that I could, I would not be here... If I am here it’s because I have the motivation, the passion, the emotion to keep playing tennis.”
Nadal may have a fair point to make in saying that he needs to improve his own personal form before winning titles again, but these comments were surely made for one reason and one reason only; he wants to unsettle Djokovic.
The current world no.1, an eight-time Grand Slam champion, is in such irrepressible form at the moment that it seems like nothing or nobody on-court will be able to derail his dream of finally completing a Career Slam. Realistically, Nadal is the only man who can continue to deny him and his dreadful form means that he’ll have to find another way to remain on-top.
Previously, Djokovic has always been the underdog to win on clay. He’s always been chasing Nadal, trying to emulate him. Now it’s different and he’s been put in the driving seat. It will be fascinating to see how he handles it.
Thus far the Serbian has managed it pretty well. After qualifying first, well ahead off the rest, he won the ATP World Tour Finals at a canter and has steamrolled all who have dared to get in his way in 2015’s Australian Open, Indian Wells and Miami tournaments; the smart-money goes on the Serb.
Nadal, by contrast, has limped and stuttered his way around court with a racquet in hand after suffering issues last year at Wimbledon. The 14-time Grand Slam champion has dropped out of the world’s top four and is showing little signs of returning.
All logic suggests that Nadal will finally succumb to his great rival, but we have never seen him fail on clay – well, we have once, but that was a long time ago – surely ‘the King’ won’t abdicate his throne?
Will Nadal’s mind-games have worked though? Monte Carlo will provide us with the first glimpses. Both men have received byes through the first round, but could meet in the semis.
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