You know the really scary thing about the way Rafael Nadal launched his title defense in Monte Carlo (where he is a six-time champion and 34-1 for his career)? He beat Jarkko Nieminen 6-2, 6-2 in barely over an hour without looking especially overwhelming, or menacing. The phrase that comes to mind is, "Just another day at the office."
At the risk of offending Nieminen and my fellow members of the male species worldwide, I must say that this reminded me of the bad-old/good-old days on clay, when a Chris Evert or Steffi Graf would go out there early in a tournament and paste a 2-and-1 licking on whomever, getting off the court in under an hour and without need of a shower. It's not supposed to be this way in men's tennis, not in 2011, not on red clay, not against a guy like Nieminen, who's been to the third round or better at Roland Garros four different times.
With his black socks, pasty complexion, and unkept, straw-like blond hair sticking out like the flight deck of an aircraft career (shades of Yevgeny Kafelnikov!), Finland's rumpled contribution to world tennis hardly looked the part of a confident go-getter. Maybe he'd already shot his wad, having survived (barely) a first-round tussle with Julien Benneteau (Nieminen won 7-6 in the third); and what's the point for dressing for success when you have to face Rafa on clay anyway? It would be like having trouble choosing a necktie when you're about to be hung with a noose.
But Nieminen, a lefty like Nadal, is an interesting player. He's capable of attacking with flat, penetrating shots when an opportunity arises, especially if he's on top of his game and feeling it. But making headway against Nadal with that kind of game demands a level of consistency comparable to his own, and in that department Nieminen feel short. Far short.
Nadal broke twice each set and finished with a not exactly amazing 4 for 9 conversion rate. But it's a deceptive stat, because you just know that once Nadal salted away that first set with the loss of just four points on his own serve, it wasn't like he was going to get all stressed-out and tight when more break points came his way. He could afford to fall asleep at the wheel, and at 5-1 in the second set he did, allowing Nieminen to duck two match points and hold the next game. Nadal then sprang awake long enough to close out the match easily.
Nadal converted 63 percent of his first serves, to Jarkko's 58. The winner struck 14 winners to the loser's nine. Nadal made only 11 unforced errors; Nieminen had 25.
There ought to be a phrase, "It's the consistency, stupid!"