The 2008 Masters Series at the Monte Carlo Country Club may be the last to draw the world's top players to this magnificent and historic venue. Given the wonderful sport that the capacity crowds have enjoyed here for the last week, many might question the Association of Tennis Professionals' decision to downgrade one of the most celebrated events on its calendar.
After the world's top four men reached yesterday's semi-finals here for the first time since the ATP's rankings system was launched in 1973, the best two players in the game duly took their places in today's final. For the third year in succession Rafael Nadal, the king of clay, will take on Roger Federer, the greatest player on the planet. In the semi-finals, Nadal overcame Nikolay Davydenko 6-3 6-2, while a sick Novak Djokovic, the Australian Open champion and most successful player this year, retired against Federer, trailing 6-3 3-2.
It will be a fitting final for what should be regarded as one of the jewels in the men's tennis crown. Monte Carlo, where the matches are played in a glorious setting overlooking the Mediterranean, brings a golden glamour to a sport that has been fighting to retain its audiences. From next year, however, players will not be mandated to attend the traditional opening to the European clay-court season and a dip in the quality of the field at a tournament that was first contested 111 years ago looks inevitable.
The top players, nevertheless, may yet decide to continue playing here, for Nadal and Federer in particular have found this the perfect springboard for their clay-court campaigns. Nadal is attempting to become the first player to win the title four times in a row for 94 years, while Federer will welcome another early chance to test himself against the game's best player on clay. Nadal has won eight of his 14 matches against Federer, including six of their seven meetings on clay, but in their penultimate meeting on the Spaniard's favourite surface it was the Swiss who came out on top. Federer's victory in Hamburg ended Nadal's record 81-match unbeaten run on terre battue, although the world No 2 went on to win their French Open final. Federer has won five of their last seven matches, dating back to the 2006 Wimbledon final.
A difficult start to the year, punctuated by illness, has been looking more promising by the week for Federer. Having gone four tournaments without winning a title, he claimed his first of the year in Estoril last weekend, thanks to Davydenko's retirement in the final, and is unbeaten since he started working with a new coach, Jose Higueras.
If another premature finish – Djokovic complained of a sore throat and dizziness – meant that Federer did not have to rescale the heights he had climbed against David Nalbandian the previous day, the world No 1 had given every impression that he would have been capable of doing so. On only the third point he produced a stupendous shot, ripping a backhand winner past Djokovic after the Serb attacked the net.
Djokovic called for the trainer after the first set and threw in the towel after Federer had broken to take a 3-2 lead in the second. The world No 3 said he had been unwell for the last three days but said his previous opponents here, which included Andy Murray on Thursday, "were not that tough and I didn't have long rallies against them like I had today".
Davydenko said he felt tired but the Russian still gave Nadal a tougher time than the scoreline suggested, keeping the Spaniard on court for an hour and 41 minutes.