Prince Albert of Monaco was in the crowd but the king of clay had no intention of handing over his crown. Rafael Nadal beat Novak Djokovic 6-3, 2-6, 6-1 here yesterday to become the first man to win five successive Monte Carlo Masters titles and extend his extraordinary domination on clay.
While Djokovic became the first player for three years to take a set off the world No 1 at the Monte Carlo Country Club, he could not prevent Nadal claiming his 138th victory in his last 142 clay-court matches. This was his 23rd title on terre battue , his 34th in total and his 14th Masters Series crown, equalling Roger Federer's total.
Nadal, nevertheless, will not be the only player to look back with satisfaction on this traditional start to the European outdoor season. Djokovic, who made a real fight of the final, signalled his intention to play a major part once again in the clay-court campaign, while Andy Murray, beaten 6-2, 7-6 by Nadal in Saturday's semi-finals, proved that he can compete with the best on his least favoured surface.
With Murray breathing down his neck in the rankings, Djokovic had the most to lose here. The world No 3's form has been patchy, but for periods he made Nadal look far from invincible. Like Murray 24 hours earlier, Djokovic was at his best when he attacked. The 21-year-old Serb hit some splendid winners, though Nadal's remarkable resilience told by the end of a final that lasted two hours and 43 minutes.
Murray, who will next play in the Rome Masters beginning in a week's time, had come here never having won three matches in a row on clay and had yet to appear in a quarter-final on his least favoured surface, but the way in which he fought back from 5-2 down in Saturday's second set confirmed that he can be a man for all seasons.
''I think hard courts are always going to be my best surface but I think I can also play well on clay,'' Murray said. ''Reaching the semis of Monte Carlo, which is one of the strongest clay-court tournaments, beating a guy like Nikolay Davydenko and having a very good set with Rafa will give me confidence. I've played much better in this tournament than I did the whole of last year on clay.''
Murray was particularly pleased with the way he had upped his game against Nadal in the latter stages. ''I started moving better and tried to get him out of position rather than playing too defensively. I started playing more aggressively, he got further and further behind the baseline and I managed to dictate more of the points.''
Nadal believes Murray has the potential to win the French Open. ''If you're a good player you're a good player on any surface,'' he said. ''He's going to continue improving on clay because he's going to win a lot of matches. As you win more you get more confidence and you learn more how to play on this surface.''