MONACO - Rafael Nadal knows he won't stay on top if he doesn't strive to get better, even when playing on clay, his favorite surface.
The top-ranked Spaniard overcame an upset bid by Novak Djokovic on Sunday, beating the third-ranked Serbian 6-3, 2-6, 6-1 for his fifth straight Monte Carlo Masters title after losing a set here for the first time since the 2006 final against Roger Federer.
"Everyone can improve in every surface, no? No one is perfect. Sure, I can improve," Nadal said. "I always work to improve because when you feel you can't improve, is difficult to wake up and go on court and practice."
Nadal is favored to also collect a fifth straight French Open title, but the way Djokovic swept Nadal aside in the second set, and the way No. 4 Andy Murray rallied back from 5-2 down to force a tie break in Saturday's semifinal offers his rivals a glimmer of hope.
Nadal was unhappy with how he served, and plans to improve on it before heading to Roland Garros next month.
"This tournament I didn't serve very well. Especially the second serve was sometimes 120 kph (74 mph). So that's (a) disaster," Nadal said. "Yeah, I have to play more. Have to serve better."
Even so, he was delighted with his win.
"Always really important for me (to) start the clay season like this," said Nadal, who won his third title this season after hard-court victories at the Australian Open and Indian Wells, Calif.
He trailed 3-1 in the first set before reeling off five straight games. Struggling on serve in the third, he saved three break points and needed 14 minutes to hold his opening service game.
After a long rally at 30-40, Djokovic seemed certain to break Nadal with a drop shot, but Nadal somehow got it back for a winner and Djokovic sank to his knees.
"A little bit lucky because he has two break points and important drop shot. I came back. That point was really important," Nadal said. "After that I think I played really well. In the important moments, I was focused all the time."
It was the third-seeded Djokovic who crumbled as Nadal clinched victory on his first match point when the Serbian sent a backhand into the net.
"I played a very good match, actually one of the best I have played against him on this surface," Djokovic said. "It's really unfortunate that in certain moments I didn't play the way I was supposed to play, with a little bit more patience."
Nadal extended his winning streak at Monte Carlo to 27 matches and won his 21st straight victory on clay since losing to Juan Carlos Ferrero of Spain in the second round of the Rome Masters in May 2008.
Nobody has matched Nadal's performance at the Monte Carlo tournament since tennis turned professional in 1968.
Reggie Doherty won the event six times overall between 1897-99 and 1902-04, while five-time winner Anthony Wilding of New Zealand won four times in a row from 1911-14 and got his other title in 1908.
Djokovic had the momentum after he dominated the second set, winning all nine points at the net and putting pressure on Nadal's wavering serve.
"It certainly gives me a lot of confidence playing against him," Djokovic said. "Hopefully I can have another chance this season."
But Djokovic missed his chance at the beginning of the third set.
"He got (an) incredible drop shot and he made a winner. The angle was just incredible," Djokovic said. "I think that's what kind of lifted him up."
With Djokovic finding his range with huge shots, he forced another chance that Nadal saved with a strong first serve. Another big forehand winner offered up a third break point, which Djokovic missed when his return landed just out.
"If I was break up, then things would probably look different," Djokovic said.
Nadal broke Djokovic immediately for a 2-0 lead, but he was struggling to hold and dropped serve on his third break point in the third game to let Djokovic back in the match.
But Nadal won the next five games â just like he did at 3-1 down in the first set â as Djokovic went for extravagant winners that landed out.