Best of Three: Djokovic's Monte Carlo title adds to ATP intrigue
1. Another ATP twist: It's not simply that the last four Grand Slam tournaments have been won by four different male players, each of the Big Four, tennis' great quadriga. Nor that the three big Masters Series events of 2013 have been won by three different players. It's the whole Parcheesi-game nature, each different player surging ahead then backsliding, only to pull ahead again.
Rafael Nadal is out of the game, his career is imperiled -- wait, now he's winning on clay, Indian Wells and is suddenly playing the best ball in the sport. Novak Djokovic wins the Australia Open, solidifies a lead -- no, wait, he's losing on hard courts, including one defeat to 34-year-old Tommy Haas, and allegedly suffering a serious ankle injury. Andy Murray has reverted to bridesmaid status and his hangdog -- oh, hold that: He's won in Miami.
This past week brought us yet another twist. Nadal kicked off the European clay campaign -- his natural habitat -- in Monte Carlo, where he had won eight years in a row. After struggling to beat Grigor Dimitrov in the quarterfinals -- the Spaniard dropped a set and won the same number of points as his opponent -- Nadal suddenly looked mortal. (This was the day after Murray lost to Stan Wawrinka 6-1, 6-2.) Nadal defeated Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the semifinals, but then fell to Djokovic 6-2, 7-6 (1) in the finals.
Nadal's 46-match winning streak in Monte Carlo wasn't just broken but also smashed. Djokovic won in resounding fashion, blitzing Nadal in the first set and staging a comeback in the second, winning 11 of the last 12 points.
"Rafa, thank you for allowing me to win it once," Djokovic said after beating Nadal on clay for only the third time in 15 meetings. Then he tuned serious. "If somebody told me 10 days ago I'd be winning the trophy, I wouldn't think it's so realistic, to be honest," the Serb said. "I couldn't ask for a better start to the clay season."
Got that right.
Social media was, predictably, abuzz with reaction and overreaction. "Djokovic has Nadal's number and has renewed his lease inside his head!" "Wait, Nadal is still recovering from his injury -- don't jump to conclusions!"
Here's still another benefit to this fluid tennis narrative: We'll get answers to all these questions. And we'll get them soon. Don't bother speculating or forecasting. Just stay tuned the next few weeks and follow along.
2. U.S. among Fed Cup winners: You're forgiven if you missed that this was Fed Cup weekend. The bad news: If the Davis Cup was once an iconic event that needs to be reconfigured, the Fed Cup has never really caught on in the first place. (Dirty secret: It is a money loser for many federations.) The good news: Many top players still participate (yes, in part because it's required for Olympic eligibility), including the Williams sisters, who helped lift the U.S. past Sweden on Sunday. The victory in the World Group playoff elevates the Americans to the 2014 World Group.
Meanwhile, in this year's World Group semifinals, Italy unseated two-time defending champion Czech Republic in Sicily and Russia came back to eliminate Slovakia 3-2 in Moscow. Roberta Vinci defeated Petra Kvitova and Lucie Safarova in singles to lead the Italians. Russia rallied behind Ekaterina Makarova and Maria Kirilenko after losing the first two singles matches to Slovakia. Italy and Russia will play for the title in November.
All of the weekend's results are at fedcup.com.
3. Players get their prize increase: Ah, the fruits of solidarity. They continue to fall from the money tree for tennis players.
Flexing their collective muscle last month, the players were able to get a significant prize increase out of the U.S. Open -- a doubling of last year's purse by 2017. Now, two more Slams have followed suit.
The French Open announced last week that prize money will spike from $24.6 million last year to $28.7 million this year. Winners will receive $1.96 million after collecting $1.64 million in 2012. Second-, third- and fourth-round losers will pocket 25 percent more than they did last year.
Over the weekend, Wimbledon announced that it, too, was fattening the pot. Prize money will jump to a record $30.5 million, including $2.3 million to the winner, an increase of 30 percent.
Clearly, the jig is up for the Slams. And somewhere, players from previous eras are kicking themselves for not organizing and extracting similar concessions. Now the question: What are the players going to do with this newfound power? Was it simply about the money? Or are there other labor battles ahead?