Nearing 32, Rafael Nadal is farther ahead of the clay field than ever

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For the 11th time in his career, Rafael Nadal won the Monte Carlo Masters. (AP)

Would you believe that Rafael Nadal lost his game on Sunday?

It started midway through the first set of his final against Kei Nishikori in Monte Carlo, when Nadal suddenly couldn’t find his forehand. He missed an easy putaway long; he drilled another into the net; he shanked another into the alley. He was broken for just the third time this week. Soon after, he began to struggle with his volley, and the backhand that had been working so well for him this week also misfired. After one rally, in which he popped up a drop shot and lost the point on the next volley, Nadal looked over at his camp with—could it be real?—concern in his eyes.

And then he won, 6-3, 6-2.

Match Point:

The result, despite Rafa’s lapse, was never in doubt, and he ended the day the way everyone expected he would: with his 11th title in Monte Carlo. No one else in the Open era has won the event more than three times; Rafa has now won it five times without dropping a set. The scores of the 10 sets that he played this week went like this: 6-1, 6-3, 6-3, 6-0, 6-2, 6-4, 6-1, 6-3, 6-2.

The last two were his 35th and 36th straight winning sets on clay; as hard as it is believe that he can still set personal records on the surface, that’s a new one for Rafa.

“The margins are small in tennis,” we often hear, but not for Nadal on clay. He can lose confidence in his best shots, miss balls he normally wouldn’t miss and be forced to run from one doubles alley to the other—and still never be seriously challenged. In the semifinals on Saturday, Grigor Dimitrov played some of the best tennis of his life over the first three games, and found himself down 0-3 when they were over. On Sunday, Nishikori broke serve in the third game with a brilliant backhand pass on the dead run. Then he gave the break right back with a double fault.

You can’t play well for a few games against Nadal and think you’re going to be rewarded with any momentum. He forces you to win each point individually, as if the fate of the match depends on every one of them.

This is the seventh season in which Rafa has won his first title in Monte Carlo; in three of those years (2008, 2010, 2017), he went on to finish No. 1. Winning here is about more than just getting his game together for the clay swing; it’s about getting his game together period. Monte Carlo is where everything comes into focus for Nadal, and where he can put any early-season doubts out of his mind. So far in 2018, the doubts have mostly been about Rafa’s health, but the combination of red clay and blue Mediterranean healed him again. By the end of the week, it was hard to remember that the guy criss-crossing the stadium court like a yellow blur was the same guy who hadn’t completed an event since October.

Nadal's Championship Speech:

A little more than a month shy of his 32nd birthday, Nadal moved as well and hit as aggressively as he ever has in Monte Carlo. It was that movement, and that aggression from the baseline, that made the difference against Nishikori, and covered up any temporary flaws in his play. He hit his forehand high and deep, while also forcing Nishikori to be ready to cover his crosscourt backhand. And when Nishikori did get Rafa on the run, he responded with lasered winners into the corners. The match was summed up for me by the look that crossed Nishikori’s face after one of Nadal’s backhands curled in from the alley and clipped the outside of the sideline. Kei pointed to the mark, as if the ball couldn’t possibly have landed in. Then, as he looked closer and realized it had indeed caught a smidgen of the tape, Nishikori let a slight smile of disbelief cross his face, as if to day, “He made that one, too?”

In 2017, Nadal gave us the spring of La Décima, when he won his 10th titles in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and at Roland Garros. Will this be the spring of La Undécima? Has his career just been an elaborate way to teach the world how the Spanish system of ordinal numbers works? By now, his triumphs during the clay season seem pre-ordained; Rafa himself barely felt the need to celebrate after the last point on Sunday. But as we saw when he briefly lost his confidence, winning finals is never as easy as he makes it look. None of Nadal’s victories over the next two months should be taken for granted or passed off as routine. What are the chances we’ll ever witness dominance like this, on any type of tennis court, again?


This Week on Tennis Channel Plus:

ATP Monte Carlo (4/15-4/22)
-Tennis Channel Plus has multi-court coverage of the 2018 Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters beginning Sunday April 16 at 7:00 AM ET, first to last ball!

WTA Dothan (4/17-4/22)
-Don’t miss the Hardee’s Pro Classic featuring Taylor Townsend and Madison Brengle live on Tennis Channel Plus beginning April 17 at 11:00 AM ET 

Fed Cup (4/21-4/22)
-Tennis Channel Plus is your home for Fed Cup action! Watch live ties between USA vs. France and Germany vs. Czech Republic beginning at 6:00 AM ET on Saturday April 21

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