Majorcan Roulette

Monday, April 11, 2011 /by

Mc

by Pete Bodo

On the whole, I imagine Guillermo Coria would rather be remembered for something other than his horrific meltdown at Roland Garros in 2004, when he ran off the rails after leading 6-0, 6-3 and ultimately squandered two match points as he lost the French Open final, 8-6 in the fifth, to Gaston Gaudio. So how about we forget about all that and celebrate Guillermo Coria...the only player ever to beat Rafael Nadal at the Monte Carlo Masters!

Of course, Nadal was all of 16 and a not entirely staggering ATP No. 109 at that point; in fact, he had to battle his way into the main Monte Carlo draw via qualifying, while Coria was already No. 26 in the world and poised to rocket to a career-high ranking of No. 3. After brushing Nadal aside in the third round, 7-6 (3), 6-2, Coria ripped through No. 33 Juan Ignacio Chela 6-1, 6-1 and savaged No. 4 Carlos Moya almost as comprehensively. Oddly enough, Coria beat Rafa, as well as his friend and mentor, Moya, by identical scores. Coria's run was finally halted in the final by No. 3 Juan Carlos Ferrero, who would go on that year to win the only Grand Slam title of his career, in Paris.

Coria was briefly derailed by injury, but he went on the win the Hamburg Masters title and earn a semifinal berth at the 2003 French Open . By January of 2004, Coria was No. 4 in the world and on the brink of—well, you know the rest.

You also know the rest when it comes to that teenager he beat in the third round at Monaco.

Were it not for Nadal's record at the French Open (where he's won the title in five of six attempts, his 38-1 record sullied only by that fourth-round loss to Robin Soderling in 2009), the streak that Nadal is hoping to continue this week in Monte Carlo would seem even more remarkable. So here's a two-part question for all you Nadal maniacs: Nadal has lost to just one man at three different Grand Slam or Masters events, Roland Garros, Monte Carlo and...what other tournament, and to whom did Nadal lose?

Hint: He's not Swiss.

Nadal lost in Rome to Ferrero, in the second round in 2008.

I quickly checked Bjorn Borg's record, just to see how he stacked up in this one-man from perfection department at comparably big tournament. It's a tricky undertaking, because the Masters concept was still a speck on the horizon in Borg's time. But some of the present day Masters events, including the Italian Open (Rome) and Monte Carlo, were more or less as prestigious and lucrative then as they are now.

Borg played in Rome four times (I was there for the last of those occasions, when Borg beat local hero Adriano Panatta, 6-3 in the fifth, while the fans pelted him with coins and assorted debris), but only won the title twice. He had to give Richard Russel a first-round walkover in 1973, and lost in the 1975 quarters to Raul Ramirez. Granted, only Ramirez truly beat him in Rome, but Nadal has already played there two more times and the official record for Borg has him with two losses.

Borg's record in Monte Carlo is a mess, an interesting reflection of the baffling nature of his career as well as his innate affection for the event—he played the tournament an amazing 11 times (by contrast, he played Roland Garros 8 times, the U.S. Open 10 times and the Australian Open just once). Some of his fealty to Monaco undoubtedly had to do with the deep pockets of the tournament, which has always been heavily supported by Monaco's royal family (Nadal has already had a tete-a-tete with Prince Albert II of Monaco this week). Jugglers and clowns and all that...

But I also sensed that Borg was profoundly impressed by the Monagesque vibe and way of life. Coming from the homogenous, conservative culture (and cold climate) of Sweden, Monaco seemed to represent the good life, the high life, to the young and impressionable Borg. He was a young guy not entirely enamored of his Spartan way of life, but neither bold nor clever enough to come up with a neat getaway. When he finally threw it all in, it was in a way that was awkward and wasteful at best, self-destructive at worst. But even then, when he longed to return, it was at Monte Carlo that he sought to recapture the old glamor, the old magic.

In his very first appearance in Monte Carlo, Borg lost the 1973 final to Ilie Nastase. There followed two puzzling losses in which Borg may very well not have tried very hard, to John Lloyd and Wojtek Fibak (in those years, Monte Carlo was a stop on the World Championship Tennis circuit). Borg then went on a tear, winning the title three years running (ending in 1980), which brought him right up to the period when his motivational troubles started. But he still would play Monte Carlo five more times, with just two highlights: lone wins over Panattta and Jose Luis Clerc. 

Borg's record in Rome was 15-2; Nadal's is 27-1. Borg was 24-8 at Monte Carlo, Nadal is already 34-1. And at the French Open, Borg lost to only one man (Panatta), although he lost to him twice. Borg won the title in six of his eight attempts and finished his career in Paris 49-2. Nadal is already 38-1, with five titles. His Panatta is, ironically, a Swede named Soderling, although we have yet to see that second, streak-ending win.

This sample of three events is arbitrary, but it isn't random. And I undertook to examine it just to confirm—or dispute—just how good Nadal is on clay. Anybody who winds up opposite him in a draw bracket is basically playing a unique Mallorcan version of Russian roulette (in the islander's version, there are six in the chamber). Here are some other details from Nadal's six-year unbeaten run at Monte Carlo:

—In his second match at the Monte-Carlo Country Club, the 16-year old topped the defending French Open champion, Albert Costa.

—Nadal missed the 2003 event, but in 2005 he won his first title by taking out this string of familiar names (in order, starting with round one): Gael Monfils, Xavier Malisse, Olivier Rochus, defending French Open champ Gaston Gaudio, Richard Gasquet and...Coria.

—Poor Coria. He had the misfortune of meeting Nadal in each of the first three tournaments the defending champion played. He was lucky to get that first W. In 2006, Coria lost to Nadal in the quarters, 6-2, 6-1. That year, Nadal's second-round victim was Monaco's own offspring, world No. 104 Jean-Rene Lisnard.

—Nadal beat Roger Federer in back-to-back-to-back finals from 2006 to 2008. Nadal won seven sets and lost just one in those three finals (the final was still a best-of-five in 2006, when Federer forced a fourth set). And at the time, Federer was at the absolute peak of his powers.

—Sure, you can say tennis is all about the match-ups, but it's also about the overall quality of your opponents. Nadal's best performance may have been in 2008 when, starting with a win over Mario Ancic, Nadal beat, consecutively, Ferrerro (No. 24), David Ferrer (No. 5), Nikolay Davydenko (No. 4) and the No. 1, Federer. Nadal did not lose a single set in that entire tournament.

—Federer lost in the third round in 2009, but Nadal beat the No. 4, Andy Murray and the No. 3, Djokovic in consecutive matches for the title.

—In 2010, Nadal didn't have to beat a single player ranked in the Top 10 to earn his title, but he lost only 14 games—more than some players lose in a single match—in the entire tournament.

Well, fellas, spin the chamber, point the barrel. Might as well get it over with.

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