MONACO (AP) — Novak Djokovic ended Rafael Nadal's winning streak at the Monte Carlo Masters on Sunday, beating the eight-time defending champion 6-2, 7-6 (1) in the final.
Nadal won his 46 previous matches at Monte Carlo, including a victory over Djokovic in last year's final. The Spaniard's last defeat in this event was against Guillermo Coria 10 years ago.
"Rafa, thank you for allowing me to win it once," Djokovic said. "I couldn't ask for a better start to the clay season."
After closing the match with another booming forehand, Djokovic held his head in his hands and looked skyward before talking to himself for a few seconds. He dropped to the ground and kissed the clay. Last year, Djokovic's grandfather died during the tournament but he kept playing to reach the final.
Nadal missed the 2004 tournament because of injury before winning his first Monte Carlo title the following year. Nadal then beat Roger Federer in the next three finals. His eight straight titles were an ATP record for one tournament.
Djokovic faced Nadal for the 16th time in a final, and they are now 8-8 in such matches. Nadal had won the previous three, including the French Open final last year.
Nadal dropped one set on the way to the final — to Grigor Dimitrov. Djokovic dropped two, having been doubtful to even play after twisting his ankle while on Davis Cup duty for Serbia against the United States two weeks ago.
"I didn't know I would be a part of the tournament this year. ... (It's) the best decision I ever made in my life," Djokovic said.
Nadal looked ready to take the match to a third set after opening a 4-2 lead in the second, but his serve let him down. Especially in the 12th game, when Djokovic broke him at love to regain the momentum entering the tiebreaker. Djokovic sealed the victory on his first match point.
After a brief shower, the match started with a delay of about 45 minutes, and the Serb raced ahead 5-0 in 25 minutes. Neither player has won a set 6-0 against the other in 34 meetings, but Djokovic came very close before Nadal summoned the strength to save five break points in the sixth game.
Nadal has reached five consecutive finals since returning from a knee injury in February — winning three, and losing two — while Australian Open champion Djokovic won his third title of the year and 37th overall.
Nadal, who leads Djokovic 19-15 in their overall meetings, applauded warmly as the Serb received the trophy that had belonged to the Spaniard for so long.
"Congratulations ... good luck for the rest of the season," Nadal told Djokovic at the ceremony.
Djokovic looked emotional as he sang along with the Serbian national anthem.
He held the first game easily, concluding it with an ace; Nadal then dropped serve by returning wide.
It was as a sign of things to come in a first set in which Djokovic hit 14 winners to Nadal's seven and made almost half as many unforced errors.
After 25 minutes of brutally effective shot making by Djokovic — including several sublime cross-court backhands — the unthinkable started to look possible: that Nadal could lose a set on clay 6-0. But Nadal dug deep, winning one point that spanned 27 shots.
Djokovic still looked the sharper, quicker player at the start of the second set, and had Nadal running around the court as he teased him with drop shots, volleys and lobs.
Chants of "Nole, Nole" broke out as Djokovic saved two break points and held for 2-1. Nadal held before moving ahead for the first time, breaking Djokovic and holding for 4-2, but his supremacy was brief, as he planted a backhand wide to allow Djokovic back to 4-4.
Then, after Djokovic had dropped his serve again in the 11th game, Nadal had a chance to even the match on his serve. Instead, he crumbled, and looked despondent in the tiebreaker.
Their finals have gone in cycles: Nadal won the first five; Djokovic the next seven; Nadal the following three.
With the French Open five weeks away, Djokovic has chosen a good time to buck the trend.