MONACO — Monte Carlo is not Rafael Nadal's playground anymore, and Novak Djokovic is claiming the throne left vacant by the King of Clay.
For the second time in three years, the top-ranked Serb ended Nadal's run at the clay-court Masters tournament, overcoming a strong challenge from the Spaniard to reach the final with a 6-3, 6-3 win.
Djokovic, who extended his current winning streak to 16 matches, will face sixth-seeded Tomas Berdych as he bids for a second title in the principality after ending Nadal's eight-year reign in 2013.
Djokovic has lost only two matches this year as he reigns over the men's game, raising his hopes that he can knock Nadal off his perch at the French Open, where Djokovic hopes to achieve a career Grand Slam.
"It's hard to say right now. One victory does not change everything that he has achieved on this surface, which is much more than me," Djokovic said. "I still don't think that I am a better player than he is on clay. But I'm obviously trying my best to win all the matches that I play, not just against him but against anybody on any surface. That's the kind of mindset that I have."
With Prince Albert of Monaco among the onlookers, both players produced some stunning tennis as Nadal showed glimpses of his old self, mixing aggression and superb defensive shots.
But the nine-time French Open champion, who is struggling to get back to his best after a wrist injuryÂ and an appendectomy, was not consistent enough to deny Djokovic a shot at his fourth Masters title in a row.
"I think I played well for moments," said Nadal. "But I get a little bit tired a little bit too early. Then when you get little bit tired, you play a little bit shorter. Then it is impossible against him. He's phenomenal in the way that he can move the ball to everywhere. If he takes advantage from inside the court, you are dead. "
Nadal rued his missed chances in the seventh game of the opening set, when he was unable to seize the momentum after a stunning forehand down the line that wrongfooted the Serb. Even Djokovic clapped his racket in appreciation.
After Nadal earned a break opportunity, another superb rally followed but this time Djokovic prevailed, smashing a winner following an exchange of lobs.
"That game was very important. I had a breakpoint that he played unbelievable," Nadal said. "It was 6-3, 6-3, but it can be much closer. I know that. I think he knows that, too. Everybody knows that."
Nadal went through a bad patch in the next game as he missed an easy backhand to hand Djokovic two break points. He saved the first one but shanked a forehand into the net on the second.
The second set was a tight affair, with Nadal fighting hard to stay in the match, but Djokovic's aggression was finally rewarded after a tense seventh game. Nadal cracked on his forehand to drop his serve and Djokovic broke again in the ninth game to seal his 20th win in 43 matches with Nadal.
"Winning in straight sets against Nadal on this surface, his favorite surface, is a great success," Djokovic said.
It was their first meeting since the Spaniard won his last big title with a win over Djokovic in last year's French Open final.
Djokovic will now try to become the first player to win the first three Masters of the season after back-to-back victories at Indian Wells and Miami. He has an 18-2 record against Berdych, who overwhelmed Gael Monfis 6-1, 6-4 to make it to the final.
But the Czech prevailed the last time they played on clay at the Rome Masters two years ago.
"I think there's always chance," Berdych said. "You just need to try to make yourself as best as you can, try as hard as you can."
Berdych took control from the baseline and Monfils struggled to cope with the fast pace imposed by the big-hitting Czech. Monfils won just 11 points in a lopsided first set before the Frenchman changed his strategy, using more sliced shots to break up his opponent's rhythm. The move paid off early in the second set when Monfils broke back to level at 1-1 as Berdych made two forehand errors.
Monfils failed to build on the momentum, though, dropping his next service game.
After hiring Andy Murray's former coach Dani Vallverdu, Berdych has been in consistent form this year, reaching the semifinals at the Australian Open and finishing runner-up in Doha and Rotterdam.
"I can see the results behind it, which is always very nice and always positive because it hasn't been a quite easy decision to make that (coaching) change in the end of the last year," Berdych said. "I think we (are) going the right way."