Rafael Nadal isn’t steamrolling the competition in the Monte Carlo masters like he’s used to, but despite the mediocre ability and the fragile knees, he has made his 8th consecutive final on the first clay tournament of the season, to face the man he hasn’t beaten in a final match for over a year, the world’s #1, Novak Djokovic.

Nadal beat Gilles Simon 6-3, 6-4, in a match that was harder than the scoreline might suggest. Simon’s mobility and ability to keep long rallies alive against Nadal’s superior shot making did give the undisputed king of clay a few frights during the day and quite a few long rallies for the fans to enjoy. Eventually, Nadal’s dominance on his favorite surface persevered, making the final without dropping a set.

It was much harder for Novak Djokovic. Not just in the earlier Semi Final against Tomas Berdych, but in the tournament as a whole. Maybe it’s the death of his grandfather, maybe it’s something more. Djokovic looks fatigued, close to broken more often than we’re used to see him. Still, he always digs deep, his trademark ability in the past 8 months, and comes out on top.

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It’s been a hellish ride for Djokovic in Monte Carlo, emotionally at least. The wins keep coming, down a hard and frustrating road. He dropped the first set against Berdych, who showed once again that despite his fantastic potential and powerful forehand, he’s easily broken when things don’t go his way. Djokovic? He seems to be digging deeper and deeper every match. His recent form reminding us of Pete Sampras in a specific Australian Open, coming up short in the final against Andre Agassi.

Nadal portrays a different role. Of someone lacking a bit of confidence. Something stuck, something not letting him entirely let loose on his opponents, like the Nadal we’ve grown to know since 2004. The losses to Djokovic over the past year, including in two Clay Masters finals, have taken their toll. His knee problems have taken their toll. Nadal needs to beat Novak after seven consecutive losses, to feel comfortable again.

Who will win the 2012 Monte Carlo Masters? Again, like in Australia, it’s a matter of who can dig deeper, of who will have more in reserves. Both of them aren’t playing their best tennis this week, but finals are about winning, not putting on a show. Both seem tired before the clay season even began, but Djokovic has had more of a rough week, a week that made him push harder than Nadal. It just might mean Rafa will finally break his negative streak against Djokovic, opening an opportunity for a very dominant run in 2012.