Rafael Nadal warned last week that "not everything is forever and everything in this life finishes one day". The end for the 26-year-old Spaniard came yesterday afternoon as Novak Djokovic's 6-2, 7-6 victory in the final of the Monte Carlo Masters brought to a conclusion one of the most remarkable winning sequences in sport.
Saddam Hussein was still on the run in Iraq and Facebook no more than a glimmer of an idea in Mark Zuckerberg's mind when Nadal last lost a match at the Monte Carlo Country Club. Nadal had claimed the title eight years in a row, winning 46 matches in succession at the historic venue, but in Djokovic he came up against an opponent who is also rewriting the record books.
In becoming the first player to beat Nadal three times in a clay-court final, Djokovic won his eighth different Masters Series title, with Cincinnati the only jewel missing from his crown. The win will also give the world No 1 renewed confidence that he can complete his set of Grand Slam titles at this year's French Open, another of Nadal's strongholds.
"What you are doing is just amazing," Nadal told Djokovic at the presentation ceremony. "Congratulations on winning my favourite tournament." Djokovic, who had lost to Nadal in two previous Monte Carlo finals, replied: "Thank you for allowing me to win here just once."
Nadal, nevertheless, is sure to put this defeat in perspective. The Spaniard, who had won his previous 81 clay-court matches played in April, returned to action little more than two months ago after a seven-month absence with a knee injury. His comeback has been more successful than he might have dared to hope: in five tournaments, he has won three titles and finished runner-up twice.
"I think I'm going in the right direction," Nadal said. "I've played five finals in a row. If you had told me that four months ago, I would be crying with joy. I'm just very happy to be able to play against the best players in the world again."
Nadal, who was also troubled by a back injury during the week, said he needed more matches under his belt to regain the relentless drive which has been one of his trademarks. He admitted that when he gets tired in matches he sometimes loses the intensity he used to bring to every point.
On this occasion, nevertheless, the most remarkable comeback from injury was Djokovic's. The 25-year-old Serb hurt his ankle playing in the Davis Cup a fortnight ago and made only a late decision to play in the year's opening clay-court event. Djokovic, who was desperate to play in what is now his home tournament, struggled with the injury in his first two matches but played better and better as the week progressed.
"I didn't know whether I was going to play in this tournament," Djokovic admitted after winning the 37th title of his career. "Right now it was the best decision of my life." He won by showing many of the qualities that you usually associate with his opponent.
His defence was breathtaking as he kept soaking up Nadal's best shots and then struck the ball with immense power whenever he had the chance to attack. In long rallies, especially on clay, you would usually back Nadal, but Djokovic won nearly twice as many exchanges over 10 strokes as the Spaniard.
For half an hour it had seemed that Nadal's reign would end with an abdication rather than a dethroning. Djokovic, timing the ball beautifully from the start, raced into a 5-0 lead – he said afterwards that he had never played better on clay than in that period – only for Nadal to save the first seven set points and restore some respectability to the scoreline.
Showing all his famed fighting spirit, Nadal was twice a break up in the second set, but on each occasion Djokovic fought back. His break to love when Nadal served at 6-5 was sensational, the Serb crashing three huge winners and forcing a mistake with a crunching return of serve. Djokovic dominated the tie-break, winning it 7-1 as Nadal quickly succumbed.
At the end Djokovic sank to his knees and kissed the surface of the court. "It's a very joyful moment for me," he said afterwards. "I wanted that trophy badly all my life."
Monte Carlo in numbers
16 The number of times Nadal has faced Djokovic in a championship decider; each has won eight
46 Matches in Nadal's winning streak in the tournament
2003 The last time Nadal was beaten at the Monte Carlo Masters