Juan Monaco is one of Rafael Nadal’s best friends, and today in Madrid he was called upon to help Rafa pull himself out of what appears to be more crisis of confidence than slump. Monaco did his part, winning a single game in a match that ended 6-1, 6-0 and lasted less than 10 minutes longer than an hour.
I don’t mean to imply that Monaco allowed Nadal to walk over him. Friend or no friend, this a hideous match-up for Monaco, whose basic lack of power forces him to win by playing steadier, more patient tennis than his opponent. But Monaco also lacks the grit and that smidgen of explosiveness that enables David Ferrer to do well against Nadal with a comparable game. Nobody, but nobody, can hope to beat Nadal—even the B-grade version of the King of Clay that has been on display lately—with as tame a game as Monaco is obliged to play.
Still, you could almost hear a collective, worldwide groan go up from Nadal partisans in the first game of this match, as Monaco contrived to threaten a break. Nadal managed to hold, though, and he pinned down Monaco 15-40 in the ensuing game. But Nadal wasted those first two break points with shots that seem emblematic of what has been ailing him in recent weeks.
Nadal mangled the first of those break points with an ugly, rally-ending forehand shank. The ensuing break point produced another rally, but this one ended with Nadal drilling a puzzling, half-hearted forehand into the net. And when Nadal followed on by pulling a routine backhand into the tramlines, it looked as if Monaco would escape with the game.
But Monaco has little with which to hurt Nadal, who has dominated their matches. Rafa led their head-to-head going into this one by 4-1—a deceptive number, because the only W on the Monaco side of the ledger was by virtue of a Nadal default. And in the four clashes won by Nadal (all on clay), Monaco got as many as three games in a set just once. Worse yet, in their last meeting, at the 2012 French Open, Nadal whipped Monaco by the nightmarish score of 6-2, 6-0, 6-0.
At 2-0 for Nadal, it looked as if he would add another bagel set to that string. But Nadal would serve us one more reminder that he’s still struggling to find his top form, and that Monaco would have at least one moment of glory in this mismatch.
At 30-all in the third game, Nadal hit a mildly angled inside-out forehand from well inside the baseline at the center of the court—and blew it wide. That gave Monaco a break point, which he converted when he ended the ensuing rally with a wonderful cross-court, bullet-flat backhand winner. We were even on serve after three games, two of which were breaks.
That was it for Monaco, though. Although he’s always among the tour leaders in first-serve percentage, today he determined that there was no point in playing Nadal the way he usually does, the way Monaco plays most everyone else. He reached for a little more with the serve, but the expected drop in his conversion rate was worse than what he might have hoped. He was lucky to put a third of his first serves into the box, and he was well into the second set before he hit the 50 percent mark.
But Nadal hit punishing returns off whatever Monaco threw in there, so, first or second serve, it hardly mattered. Nadal broke his Argentine friend every time he served.
On one of the few occasions when Monaco did provide stiff resistance, with Nadal leading 4-1 in the first set, his concentration was thrown off at break point when he was slapped with an unnecessary time-violation warning. That disturbed Monaco, who must by then have been feeling a little embarrassed about the pasting he was taking. It’s bad enough to be sentenced to the sporting equivalent of an execution; the last thing you want to do is appear as if you’re kicking and screaming and dragging your heels as they take you to the gallows.