Dirt Bomb

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Four days ago—was it really just four days ago?—I had a talk with my friend here at TENNIS.com, Richard Pagliaro, in which we searched in vain for a reason why Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic wouldn’t meet in the Monte Carlo final. The world’s two best players had split the last two title matches here, and they’d picked up their long-running rivalry earlier this month in Miami. Many of us assumed that their next battleground would be the European clay swing, starting with the three Masters tournaments and finishing, perhaps with a six-hour epic, at the French Open. You can understand why: Before Sunday, one of them, either Rafa or Nole, had reached the final of every (red) clay Masters event for the last eight years. And up until Friday, the two had appeared to be at the top of their games in Monte Carlo.

As we know now, trouble was on the way, and their streak of final-round appearances would be snapped. Yesterday Stanislas Wawrinka beat Roger Federer for his first career Masters title (see my Racquet Reaction here). In my conversation with Richard last week, I had offered up Stan as someone who might possibly have the confidence to knock off Nadal on the right day. Still, I wasn’t forecasting a final between the two Swiss men, and I haven’t heard of anyone else who was, either.

But it happened. Now the question is: What else happened in Monte Carlo? Was this a blip or a trend? Was it a pleasant diversion for the Swiss, before Nadal and Djokovic take over again, or will we look back in a couple of months and point to the Holy Weekend as the moment when this year's men’s clay season turned into an unholy mess?

I’ll start by getting the caveats and notes of caution out of the way. With Rafa, history says that one defeat during the run-up to the French Open isn’t a reason to panic—he has lost at this time of year and come back before. In 2013, Nadal went out to Djokovic in Monte Carlo, and then won every match except one through the U.S. Open. In 2011, he lost to Djokovic in Rome and Madrid, and still ended up holding the trophy in Paris. 

Yet Nadal’s loss to David Ferrer on Friday was different. It wasn’t just that it had been a decade since Nadal (a) lost to Ferrer on clay, and (b) lost before the final in Monte Carlo. It was the way Rafa lost, and what he said it indicated about his psyche. 

“I am not playing with the right intensity in my legs,” Nadal said. “When that happens, the unforced errors are there more often. Is true that I started the year great in Doha and during Australia. But, I don’t know, I don’t have to lie to nobody. After what happeded in Australia was a little bit harder for me to find again the intensity, the confidence, the inside power that I always have. Even if I won Rio, and played the final in Miami, you know, remains something in my mind and in my game. I going to try to fight to find that solution soon.”

Nadal, in other words, has found it hard to manufacture the elusive mix persistence and inspiration that has traditionally helped him come up with the great get or the brilliant shot at the right time—that little something extra, which he calls "inside power." This is more of a concern coming from him than it would be from another top player, because that inside power has defined his career. How many times have we seen Nadal find his way through a tricky set or defuse a hot-hitting opponent by setting aside his nerves or doubts just when they would be overwhelming most other players? How many times have we seen him look like he couldn’t possibly out-grind Ferrer, yet do it anyway? Through his uncle Toni, Nadal has decided that the key to his success is his willingness to endure, both mentally and physically, a little bit more than his opponent. Rafa will need to, as he says, “find that solution,” and find that little something extra again, if he’s going to be as successful as he has been.

Nadal, if the past is any indication, will find it sooner or later. But he might not find it in time to hold on to No. 1 in 2014. He has never finished in the top spot two straight years, so in a sense he was due for a letdown. What about Djokovic? The solution to his problem is simpler: His wrist, which flared with pain at the start of last week and grew worse at the end of it, must heal. On Saturday, things sounded ominous: After his defeat to Federer, Djokovic said he couldn't play tennis for a while. On Sunday, things sounded slightly less ominous, at least to my ears: He said he was going to rest completely for seven or eight days and see how his wrist felt. Djokovic has had injuries and issues to deal with in the spring before—an ankle problem and the death of his grandfather in the last two years—and has recovered well.

Yet even if the wrist does heal and let him compete in Madrid at full strength in early May, the injury came at an unfortunate time. Djokovic played some of the best tennis of his career to win Miami, he sounded upbeat yet realistic coming into the clay season, and he was virtually flawless in his early rounds in Monte Carlo. If Djokovic had defended his title there, he likely would vaulted to favorite status for the French Open. By Saturday, in the second set of his semifinal with Federer, Nole’s smiles had been replaced by winces as he trudged around the court, shaking his head at his bad luck.

Can we imagine a clay season without Nadal and Djokovic in the pole positions? It would be a land of opportunity for those who haven’t seen much of it on dirt in recent years. Two of those could be the men who did reach the Monte Carlo final, Federer and Wawrinka. 

Federer came to Monaco in part to shore up his ranking in case he has to miss one of the other Masters, or the French Open, for the birth of his third child this spring. He ended up, possibly even to his own surprise, just a few points from winning the title for the first time. I liked the way Federer hung in to beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in three sets in the quarters. And he was at his free-flowing best at the end of the first set against Djokovic, before the match became academic in the second. But I didn’t like the way Federer went out in the third against Wawrinka. Much like in his loss to Kei Nishikori in Miami, when Stan began throwing the big punches, Federer couldn’t find a way to punch back. He didn’t look like he believed he could.

So what about Stan? He has now won his first major and first Masters in 2014, and he’s currently No. 1 in the race to London. As I asked yesterday, are we willing to entertain the idea that he could be the first man since Jim Courier in 1992 to win the Australian Open-French Open double? In March, the idea sounded like a joke. I had said then that I expected Wawrinka to slump in the States and return to something like his best form on European clay, but I didn’t expect him to do it so decisively.

From the first game of his first match in Monte Carlo, which would end up being a 6-0, 6-2 demolition of Marin Cilic, Wawrinka clubbed the ball with an authority that was completely missing in Indian Wells, Miami, and especially in the horrible doubles match he played in Davis Cup two weeks ago. But while Wawrinka may not look like a clay-courter, the surface gives him time to uncoil on his long ground strokes. He dictated most of the rallies he played in Monte Carlo; more important, against Ferrer and Federer, Stan played with the calm assurance of a guy who is now 6-0 against Top 10 players in 2014. As he said afterward, "I've proved I can beat anyone."

This weekend was not the end of Rafole; they’re still the favorites to reach the French final. And it wasn’t a sign of the imminent collapse of the Big 4; one of them was still in action on Sunday, as always. But where Monte Carlo has traditionally been the week when Nadal, and in recent years Djokovic, begin to slam the clay-season door shut on everyone else, this week the tournament cracked that door open just a little bit wider.

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