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The Prince of Monte Carlo

Novak Djokovic takes the lead on the road to Paris.

By 4.23.13

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Defending champion Rafael Nadal dominated French ace Jo-Wilfred Tsonga in his semifinal match at the Monte Carlo Masters notwithstanding pains pretty much all over, they said, including his back. The Spaniard, who was going for his ninth consecutive win here, winced and scowled a few times, whether from the pain or from unlikely errors, but the match was in the bag from the beginning, requiring only two sets.

Even clearer was the other semi, in which the No. 1-ranked Novak Djokovic, the Serb phenom, crushed Italy’s Fabio Fognini, who caused a brief stir by getting this far with a win over French ace Richard Gasquet. Djokovic strained an ankle during the recent Davis Cup play (the Serbs beat our team, but this weekend our girls beat Sweden’s in the Fed Cup, thanks to Venus and Serena Williams), and there had been some doubts whether he would be fit for the Monte Carlo tournament. He certainly did not look like a man with a bad ankle against Fognini, dispatching him quickly, nor against Nadal when the two met in the final last Sunday.

There is the old play-through-the-pain school and there is the do-not-aggravate-the-problem school, and neither is scientifically proven to be better than the other, but there is the sporting dimension of the matter too to consider. Tennis is not a contact sport but it is not for wimps at the pro level, either. However, this is neither here nor there. Monte Carlo, a neighborhood in the Principality of Monaco, has its share of sporting types who like to argue about whether it is all in the head or all in the pocketbook. I am not referring to the professional sports stars who live here, but to the very rich, who are not like you and me. No, they have much more money. This exchange of truisms took place several decades ago, but it involved Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway or John Dos Passos and Scott Fitzgerald or some other combination, you can look it up. Could have been Ring Lardner and Heywood Broun, come to think of it.

Seriously, the question is why they call Monte Carlo the rock, when I thought Gibraltar was the rock? Well, Nadal has the edge, historically speaking, against Djokovic, especially on clay. Memory has its faults, but I cannot think of more than one loss by the Spaniard to the Serb on clay up to now. Maybe two. One to Federer, the Swiss master, somewhere, maybe one to Soderling, the big Swede. If you come from an s country you are at a definite advantage these days in tennis -- Murray, Federer, Nadal, Djokovic all come from s lands, and others near their level of expertise include Wawrinka, Ferrer, and others such as Almagro, Andujar, Soderling, Anderson. This is better than being from an an country -- Sudan, Afghanistan, Pakistan. Those places do not produce tennis players. Nor do they produce doctors, climate scientists, agronomists, thinkers, teachers, scholars, as do Israel, Canada, and the United States. It takes a serious investment to produce a doctor or a man who cares about improving agriculture, to feed more of the world’s poor. Or rich for that matter. Monaco is the richest place on earth, where the average joe is a billionaire, or close. Plus they have excellent health and social insurance. They have low taxes. Grover Norquist would love this place. The population is about equivalent to a small American suburb, 150,000 or so. Anyway, to be a doctor requires investments in money, time, family support, school systems, advanced studies, laboratories, hospitals, much else besides. The countries ending in an do not do that. They invest in teaching hate and death. They are the badlands of the globalized world, just as they were the badlands of the pre-globalized world.

The final begins, after a rain delay. I keep thinking of a story title, but the author escapes me. “The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo.” It is either a story by Scott Fitzgerald, or it is a line in a story by J. D. Salinger, wherein he refers to someone who looked like someone who could have been the man who did that, broke the bank at Monte Carlo. On the TV they showed a guy named by the caption Prince Albert of Monte Carlo, looks like a twit, but appearances are deceiving, the Grimaldi family that owns this place and of whom he is the scion, is pretty sharp, I mean look at what they got, French security plus all the rich people, they have a pretty good setup. And their sovereignty has been going on since the Middle Ages. This is much longer than the Daleys in Chicago.

It looks like a posh place, just from the way the spectators are dressed. No cutoff jeans and football or rugby jerseys here, there is probably a dress code. Beautifully cut blazers, fancy dresses on the ladies, lots of expensive optics and gold on necks, arms, that sort of thing, nice hats too. However, it is the third game of the first set and the Serb is demolishing the Spaniard. It does not look good for the man of Majorca. The mighty mountain man is controlling the points relentlessly, running the other guy around like a yoyo. Rafa has been the lord of Monte Carlo for the past several years -- eight in a row or some such incredible record, but this could be the end of the reign. But you can bank on this: the reign of the Grimaldi’s will continue. Some things in this fast-paced globalized world do not change. The Grimaldi’s marry American beauties. Prince Albert’s father, Prince Rainier -- nearly 60 years in power -- was married to movie legend Grace Kelly, she of High Noon and The Bridges of Toko Ri, two of the all time films of American manhood. The prince’s great grandfather, or maybe his great-great-grandfather, was also married to an American beauty, an opera lover. Monaco has a great opera house, as well as many famous sport events, such as a Grand Prix automobile race.

This tennis tournament is also among the unchanging high points of the civilized Mediterranean world; it dates from the early days of organized tennis, 1897, and has usually been won by European players. I do not recall Don Budge ever won here, and the mighty (and emotionally uptight) Bill Tilden only once, early 1930s. Americans are not famous for winning on clay, but there may be other causes as well, deep causes.

Actually, an American, John Isner, won the U.S. Clay Court Championship a couple weeks ago. But he lost here in the first round. Bad show for the Yanks.

Nadal and Djokovic both have powerful forehands. Very different, but similar in effectiveness. You give either one of those 20-somethings a forehand that he can use, he puts it away. Nole has a fantastic down-the-line shot, comparatively flat, unreachable in the corner directly in front of where he hits it -- a very difficult stroke to make. Rafa by contrast has a superb topspin forehand, possibly the most powerful in the history of the sport, which he can place anywhere but which he tends to fire at angles. It is a fantastic shot, especially on clay, where it gains additional acceleration (sports surface engineers are not produced by an countries, either), but it is not working today because Djokovic is too fast, too agile, too gritty. He knows he must hit to Nadal’s backhand, and he does, and it works. There seems to be nothing this man cannot reach on those long legs and send back like a bullet with that cannon of an arm. I am not a betting man, but it is already 4-0 for the world No. 1, and it don’t look like a ball game.

If Djokovic takes Monte Carlo, it will be a huge boost in his campaign to win at Roland-Garros, which thus far is the only “grand slam” tournament that has eluded him. He will have the confidence, the momentum. Monte Carlo Masters 1000 is the first venue of the European clay court season, which ends at the French Open at the Roland Garros stadium. If Djokovic comes on strong on the red clay, Nadal, the leading clay player, sidelined with a knee injury for most of a year following his win at last year’s French Open (over Djokovic), will be worried, nervous, under siege. Of course, he will also have the blood lust, the need for revenge, for self-proving. Who is to say how a man’s mind works on those rectangular spaces, those courts of dreams, those sun-drenched mats of physical prowess.

5-0, and Nadal, serving to stay in the set, hits a brilliant inside out to the side and Nole can only look at it. And promptly replies with a drop shot that Rafa does not even run after. Yes, sir, this looks like Nole’s day, but ya never know in tennis. Well, he makes a breathtaking backhand save on a Rafa down-the-line forehand that most players would not have tried for, it caught Nadal by surprise and he could only tap his return into the net. Nadal is resilient, though, saves three set points and a perfect drop shot from the net finally gives him an ad, which he converts. Spares himself the horror of a wipeout, at least, but now it is 5-1, Djokovic serving for the set.

Nadal looks exhausted. He goes through all his little tics at the baseline, the tugging at his pants, the touch to his ears, headband. Ah, he breaks -- gets Nole to twice send net volleys into the alley, then hits a mighty return of serve which Nole nets. 2-5, it may yet be a match.

Now now, let us not condescend. Of course it is a match. Nadal is playing fantastic tennis. He is showing why he remains to date the finest champion on clay of the contemporary game. A superb rally at 15-15 confirms this, but Djokovic gets the score back to 30-30 quickly and then gets first to 40. Set point again. Nadal saves it on a brilliant forehand that Djokovic disputes, but it is clearly on the line. Djokovic gets another ad, Nadal again saves his set, and then once more; now it is the eighth set point and finally Nole closes. All or nothing for Nadal in the second set.

First of second, Djokovic serves and holds easily, playing Nadal for a sucker on the last point with a drop shot followed by a high deep lob. Rafa is in serious trouble now, if he loses and Nole is up a break right away he is unlikely to get the big mo back. However, he holds at love, so maybe he can come back.

Long rallies during Djokovic’s second service game, these guys are astonishing in their toughness. Nadal misses his first break opportunity with a powerful and bold backhand crosscourt return of serve, but it sails long, then he misses on the next rally a fairly easy shot and they are again at deuce. Djokovic gets the first ad, converts, 2-1.

Nadal finally breaks, in the fifth game, putting him ahead for the first time, but it would surprise no one if Novak broke right back, he is already at 15-30 on Rafa’s service. The Spaniard definitely started strong -- the lust for revenge, see supra -- and he is making superb passing shots. Mistakes too, however, notably on his backhand. An ace -- his second -- gives him the ad, and a winner serve which Djokovic shanks out of bounds gives him the game, 4-2. Ya never know.

You never know in baseball either; how many games are won from behind in the ninth? So big deal, yah, ain’t over till it’s over: Nole holds the seventh game at love. Of course, it could be deliberate on Rafa’s part, let the game go and just concentrate on holding his next two service games. However, right there you have a major difference between tennis and baseball, both involve tactical moves, but in baseball you would never give up points the way in tennis you might conceivably concede a game, because in baseball there are too many factors out of your control. Anyway, no one would deliberately concede a game to Novak Djokovic, he is much too strong. Sure enough, he follows up with a break and it is even again, 4-4. I said I was not a betting man, but it looks to me like this is it. Nadal had a nice rally there in the first half of the second set, but could not sustain it, Djokovic is going to hold and then break and that will be it, the man who broke Nadal at Monte Carlo. And the bank.

Sure enough, he holds on a Nadal error -- a high smash into the net, a shot he never should miss. Nadal is discouraged and weary, looks like in his mind he is thinking, too bad, best is to quit and start concentrating on the mental edge he must work up for the French Open. But Nadal never quits. He puts away a fantastic overhead smash on the first point, wins the second, sends his fans into their Rafamania mode, 30-15. I always say let the better man or team win, and you have to admit that for all Rafa’s brilliance, Nole has been playing a better match, both more solid and tactically finer and more athletic. A brilliant net shot at 40-15 confirms this, but Rafa manages to trick him with a powerful second serve at 40-30, which he nets: 5-5.

Rafa goes all out, gets the first point of the 11th on a ferocious rally, but then nets an easy forehand. It’s a nailbiter now. And lookahere, Nadal breaks Djokovic and goes into the 12th game serving for the set!

But no, Novak breaks at love and far from a nailbiter it’s a tiebreaker. What a Nole rally! Given the way they are playing, it would seem likely he will have steadier nerves in the tiebreak. Sure enough, he is playing more aggressively and quickly gets up 2-0, 3-1, 4-1 on a great crosscourt from behind the baseline.

1-5, as Rafa shanks what should have been a winner. Oh boy. They change sides. The crowd, generally on Rafa’s side, is quiet. He must hold, then break. Nope, sends a shot flying, 6-1, Nole serving for match. Gets it on his first serve, screams, spreads his arms wide, kisses the ground, throws punches and balls, takes off his shirt as does Nadal, who looks glum. The end of a long reign, sorry, hard to take.

Should there be more decorum when you win? The way we live today, such a thought would scarcely be understood by most fans. The cup is called La Coupe de S.A.S. le Prince Albert II, Monte Carlo Rolex Masters (well, what do you want, at Monte Carlo they all wear Rolex watches). Nice ceremony, the serinissime excellency arriving, a bit portly it seems, looks like a twit, but he is probably much smarter than he looks. His wife wears an ankle length dress. Well, Rafa looks happy enough now, gets his plaque, actually it is a kind of dish, and he is smiling.

And now the world No. 1, the prince gives him the cup, he holds it up, kisses it, goes to stand next to his long-time rival. Good show, boys. Serb national anthem and all -- Novak is either singing along or quietly mouthing the words, it is impossible to tell. No nonsense, either, in this song, you should note the lyrics -- God, our hope; protect and cherish /
Serbian crown and Serbian race!

Next Rafa makes a few remarks, good sport, thanks everyone, congratulates Novak, thanks the umpires and the linesmen, humble and all, good loser, and keep in mind that loser here means he is better than everyone else but one. So then Novak says how proud and happy he is and also thanks everybody and keeps it brief, good winner.

Oh man, sports are fun. Photo ops now with the Prince of Monte Carlo, maybe he looks like a toff but he is definitely a man of means, and hand it to him, he keeps this tournament tradition going. And the Princess and another woman, I believe the tournament director or maybe she is the principality’s minister of sports? Holds the Rolex concession? Now the two champs pose together. In the past ten years, rare has been the tournament where the last two men standing have not been these two or one of them plus Roger Federer. It has been an era of dominance by men from countries whose names start with s.

Madrid and Rome are on the clay court schedule, and no doubt, Rafa will feel tonight and tomorrow and the next day he must at all costs win at least one of those, and then we have Roland-Garros, the Internationaux de France, and if the past is prologue: but, hell, the future ain’t written nowhere. But there is always a road to Paris.

Photo: UPI

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About the Author

Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.