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MONACO – Novak Djokovic will have a crack at toppling Rafael Nadal in the Monte Carlo Masters final for a second straight year.
Despite their respective injury concerns, they will meet for the 16th time in a championship. Nadal leads 8-7 in their finals.
"I am not the kind of player who is stupid and says, 'I want to play against the best,'" Nadal said joking, added he would rather face an easier opponent on Sunday.
Nadal can improve upon his formidable record on the Monte Carlo red clay — winner of the last eight titles and 46 consecutive match victories. He defeated Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 6-3, 7-6 (3) in the semifinals on Saturday to set up a rematch with Djokovic.
The Spaniard has reached five successive finals since returning from a seven-month layoff for a left knee injury. He will go for his fourth title of the season against Djokovic, who cruised past unseeded Fabio Fognini of Italy 6-2, 6-1.
The No. 1 player showed no sign his right ankle was bothering him, two weeks after twisting it during a Davis Cup match against the United States.
"At the start of the week, the way I felt in the first match, if somebody told me I'd be playing finals, I'd be very happy to hear that," Djokovic said. "I'm handling it much better than I was at the start of the week. It has been improving and the pain has been decreasing. It's much, much less than before."
Djokovic and Nadal have not played against each other since last year's French Open final, which Nadal won. He has won their last three encounters, after Djokovic took the previous seven — all of which were tournament finals. Nadal leads their head-to-head contests 19-14.
"I need to have a very optimistic mindset," Djokovic said. "I'm not going out there to play my best; I'm going out there to win. That's how I'm going to feel tomorrow."
Nadal has been on a winning roll at Monte Carlo since 2005. His last loss here was to former French Open champ Guillermo Coria in 2003, and he missed the following year because of injury.
He insists he's still some way from full fitness, despite dropping only one set so far.
"I know I need time to be 100 percent fit," said Nadal, adding he thinks Djokovic's injury was tame by comparison. "He stopped for, what, a few days for his ankle?"
Their finals have gone in cycles: Nadal won the first five; Djokovic the next seven; Nadal the following three.
"I know what I need to do," Djokovic said. "Of course, it's easier said than done."
In Grand Slam finals, Djokovic leads 3-2.
The sixth-seeded Tsonga saved four match points and he rallied back from 5-1 down to force a second-set tiebreaker before Nadal clinched the victory with a forehand winner.
"My feeling was I played a solid first set without doing anything special, but with no mistakes," said Nadal, adding that he was hampered by the windy conditions. "It's true that for me it's better if we see a little bit more sunshine."
Tsonga started strong but missed three break chances in the fourth game — including one which left him shaking his head in disbelief after Nadal scooped the ball off his ankles and whipped it back down the line. The flustered Frenchman made 17 unforced errors in the first set compared to four for Nadal.
"I always try to be aggressive when I play him. It's the only way for me. If I stay back, there's no way I can win," Tsonga said. "But I can't rush to the net either because otherwise he hits a passing shot, and 90 percent of the time I lose the point. So I have to have the right mix between patience and aggressiveness."
Fognini made 26 unforced errors against Djokovic and was jeered off the court after losing his first Masters semifinal in 52 minutes.
The Italian called for a trainer at 4-1.
But he looked demoralized and at the next changeover he called for the trainer again, pointing to his left shin as the trainer sprayed and taped it. He said he hurt it playing football tennis with his coach.