SEVILLE, Spain—In the tennis version of truth or dare, playing Rafael Nadal on clay is a challenge akin to a third-grade girl being forced to kiss her crush. In both instances, courage must be gathered, but success isn't guaranteed. Today, Juan Monaco not only played the King of Clay on his synonymous surface, but he caught Rafael Nadal in peak form, the Spaniard looking like does in Monte Carlo or Roland Garros, tournaments he's been almost flawless in.
We may want to consider adding Davis Cup to Nadal's clay strongholds. Coming into this final, Nadal was 14-0 on the dirt in singles rubbers, and had recently pulverized Richard Gasquet and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the semifinals by the eye-popping scores of 6-0, 6-2, 6-4 and 6-3, 6-0, 6-1, respectively.
You can now make that record 15-0 after another dominating dirt demonstration, 6-1, 6-1, 6-2 over the unfortunate Monaco. Summoned to face Nadal yesterday, Monaco actually did well for himself, but that must be taken into context considering his opponent. Monaco hit the ball how he needed to—hard, and as far away from Nadal as possible. There were errors, yes, but there seemed to be more routine retrievals from Rafa (that are actually quite difficult). Monaco also embraced the clay, and I mean that both strategically and literally. On two occasions, Monaco found himself one with the court after doing all he could to earn the point. He lobbed Nadal, forced him into bad positions, played touch shots; Monaco did some of everything. And both times he was passed by Nadal, the dirtied Argentine looking up at a powerful Spaniard, a delirious Spanish crowd, and the ball whizzing by.
On those two consecutive points, the crowd saw a lot of the defense that makes Nadal so potent on clay. But the world No. 2 showed them all the other reasons throughout the match. Nadal's trademarked topspin makes his forehand one-of-a-kind and affords him access to rarely-used angles. But I thought Nadal's backhand played a greater role in how today's match turned out. It was hit as well as I've seen it in some time, keeping Monaco back (instead of attacking short balls, which he loves to do) and providing a source for winners.
It quickly became apparent that just winning games would be a big accomplishment for Monaco, and the loud Argentine supporters were more than happy to celebrate alongside when he did. Monaco's best tennis came in the third set, when he hit the ball even harder, placed it even better, and even mustered an ever-so-brief lead at 2-all, 0-15, with Nadal serving. For an even briefer moment, I thought that if Monaco could somehow break here, we might have something competitive. But Nadal held strong, got the hold, then erased all hope with the two breathtaking points I mentioned above. The crowd ate up the first effort, and like a rock star, Nadal gave them an encore they wouldn't forget. (Watch the highlights when they are available.)
The match may not have been terribly competitive, but it was a joy seeing Rafa on clay for the first time. He didn't give me a scare like a certain grass-court great did last year, but he surely gave Argentina some trepidation. It's hard to see anyone beating Nadal here on Sunday, so the del Potro-Ferrer rubber and doubles point are crucial to the away side's hopes. Just one match in, and Argentina is already in a tough spot.