As Rafael Nadal comes to terms with losing at Monte Carlo for the first time in eight years, he must know that the lengthening odds on his retaining his French Open title in little over a month are a more accurate barometer of his chances than sentiment. History flatters and it misleads; what went before never lasts.
The player himself was not that sad about surrendering that incredible streak. He would not admit to being relieved, but defeat has never cowed him, an invaluable shield in sport. What was obvious, however, was that losing to Novak Djokovic on Sunday was painful in the clear-cut physical sense, etched on his face as his body ever so slowly began to betray him.
At the very end, tiredness sapped his normally bottomless reserves of energy, a rare sight.
Just as the Serb ground him down on the hard courts of New York and Melbourne in 2012 (as well as Madrid and Barcelona on clay the year before) so he did it on Nadal's royal carpet of clay by the Mediterranean, where, to his credit, Djokovic hailed him as still supreme. But for how much longer? In most markets the Spaniard has drifted from odds-on to even money to win the French Open for a seventh time, with Djokovic in to 7-4, even though Nadal attracts nearly twice as much investment as him.
The evidence transcends money, and there is now the delicious element of uncertainty about the tournament because of what we witnessed at the Monte Carlo country club, not just on Sunday, but over the whole week. In the past, like all great players, Nadal has compartmentalised indifferent performances against lesser players in the early rounds, husbanding his intensity for the kill that counts.
On Sunday, the glint and the grunt was not so convincing. The eyebrows arched, as ever, and the wrists rolled with familiar muscularity, but the rest of the Nadal machine misfired too often, especially in the first set, when he was in danger of being bagelled by Djokovic for the first time in all of their 34 matches.
You could see the narrowing of the market in every stutter on Court Central as Nadal refused to ask serious questions of his unreliable left knee, and Djokovic – himself still nursing a bruised right ankle – powered his ground strokes, on the rise, to all the difficult spaces to win 6-2, 7-6 (6-1), and claim his first Monte Carlo Masters title in the city where he has lived for six years.
The world No1 will probably never win the adulation of the fans the way Nadal and Roger Federer have done over the past decade, although his record is superb, his gifts unquestioned. He knows it (according to friends) and it does not seem to bother him. What drives Djokovic is not praise but self-belief. While seven of Nadal's 11 slams have come in Paris, Djokovic has yet to add clay to his portfolio of six majors, and there is a growing sense that Roland Garros is ready for an upset.
What Nadal cannot control as he steels himself for his first significant test of the year is the recovery rate of his chronically troublesome knee, or the Tour schedule. He says he will have enough court time to hit the required level of intensity by late May with examinations in Barcelona, Madrid and Rome over the next few weeks. He might be right. But he revealed after the semi-finals that he has been able to devote far less time to practice than in past years because he is still spending so much time in rehab. As it stands, there is not a lot of juice in the tank.
In effect, Nadal is a hospital patient being asked to hobble in to work every week. And, if even seven months away from the court have left him still struggling to rely on his body under pressure, he is depending on match practice in live competition to bring him to full fitness. He cannot afford to lose early in any of the tournaments and that might induce anxiety.
From here until just after Wimbledon, there will be little rest. As Andy Murray did when struck by back spasms at the French Open last year, Nadal has to fight through the pain – and that is unlikely to be good for his knee.
What is odd is Nadal has made the most successful start to any season of his gilded career – from a near flawless tour of South American clay then on the hard court of Indian Wells, where, to everyone's amazement, he won.
Yet on the clay of Monte Carlo he struggled to retain that momentum.
So the 2013 slam season opens up before us, filled with expectation and intrigue. Murray disappointed in Monte Carlo, losing to Stanislas Wawrinka in straight sets in the third round to surrender the world No2 ranking, and Federer is in the middle of a two-month break after some halting performances. He turns 32 in August. Nadal will be 27 by the time the semi-finals have arrived at the French Open, and Murray has to rekindle the fire of Flushing Meadows, Melbourne and Miami. As his coach Ivan Lendl says elsewhere, it is about getting quality time on clay, to be sure of his movement and, as a result, sure of his shot. That didn't happen in Monte Carlo; it might happen in Madrid. If it does, he could give Paris a decent shake.
Standing apart right now, however, after several weeks of uncertainty, is Djokovic. Could he do in 2013 what he did for nearly all of 2011? Maybe not. But he is in the mood.http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/blog/2013/apr/23/rafael-nadal-novak-djokovic-tennis