Rafael Nadal sings the praises of numerous tournaments as he travels the world. Indian Wells, Wimbledon and Barcelona are high on his list of favorites, and his name will forever be linked with Roland Garros. But if he had to choose a place to play the most important match of his life, he’d probably do it on the center court at the Monte Carlo Country Club. Unlike dozens of other tennis players, Rafa has never moved to Monaco, but it still serves as his tennis home away from home.

“Here is unbelievable, no?” Nadal said on Sunday, after beating Gael Monfils 7-5, 5-7, 6-0 to win the Monte Carlo Rolex Masters for the ninth time. “Is a tournament I love so much. It’s so special for me. I won the first one here, and a couple of times I was struggling a little bit and I come back here and played well.”

The “first one” came in 2005, when an 18-year-old Rafa topped then-King Of Clay Guillermo Coria in Monte Carlo for his first Masters title; he would go on to win his first French Open two months later. And Nadal has turned his season around in Monte Carlo more than just a “couple of times”: In 2008, 2010, 2011, and 2012, he won his first tournament of the year there; each time, he went on to win at Roland Garros, and in two of those seasons (’08 and ’10), he got so hot that he finished the year ranked No. 1. Monte Carlo has been both Nadal’s spark and his firewall.

Will it play a similar dual role for him in 2016? Again, Rafa came to the Principality without a title; he hadn’t won a tournament since Hamburg last summer. Again, he came in struggling and uncertain of his game; this season he had lost in the first round at the Australian Open and the Miami Masters, and failed to win either of the clay-court events he had entered, in Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro. For years, people rolled their eyes when Rafa told us he wasn't the favorite to win the French Open. Not this time. When the clay season began a week ago, no one argued when he said Novak Djokovic was the favorite “until someone shows something different.”

Maybe Rafa, back in comfortable surroundings, had a feeling about his own game. In Monte Carlo, he was the one who showed something different; and because of that, the clay season on the men’s side just got a lot more interesting. After a weary Djokovic exited in the first round, Rafa played his best sustained week of tennis of the last two seasons.

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While he didn’t face the world No. 1, he did knock off two Top Tenners, and four players who will likely be major factors in France. Nadal did it by playing the type of tennis that we had gradually become un-accustomed to seeing from him. In his glory years, Rafa was famous for taking an opponent’s best shot, wearing him down, breaking him physically and psychologically, and running away with the win at the end. That’s how three of his victories went this week.

In the second round, Nadal beat a possible future French Open champion, Dominic Thiem, by surviving a baseline barrage from the young gunslinger, and outlasting him when it mattered most, at the end of the first set. By the finish, you could see that Rafa’s backhand was strong, and his forehand was getting stronger.

In the quarterfinals, Nadal beat last year’s French Open champion, Stan Wawrinka, by doing what he has traditionally done to Stan: Hitting high and heavy and taking his most feared shot, his one-handed backhand, away from him. It also didn’t take Nadal long to get under the irritable Wawrinka’s skin—in that way, the match was a throwback to their first 12 meetings, all of which were won by Rafa.

In the semifinals, Nadal played throwback tennis again to beat Andy Murray. As he has many times before, Rafa allowed Murray to dictate in the early going, before sprinting furiously down the homestretch for the win. As he has many times before, Murray redlined against Rafa for a set and a half, but not for two.

In the final, Nadal survived another barrage, this time from Gael Monfils. Rafa stood on top of the baseline and controlled the rallies, but for two sets it was the Frenchman who was the one with the superior firepower, the one who could finish a point with a 105-M.P.H. forehand. Nadal didn’t appear to have a gear to match Monfils, yet he found one anyway at the start of the third set. All week Rafa had walked and played with confidence, but over the last six games he went beyond that and played with urgency. Monfils never stood a chance; he spent most of the last set doubled over.

“I felt that I needed to hit more with my forehand,” Nadal said. “Was tough to find that feeling. But in the third, in the most important moment, I decided to myself, ‘Say, OK, now I have to go for the shots, I have to hit my forehand deeper and go for more winners, and I did and that was the difference. First two sets were unbelievable tough.”

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Now may be the time to mention that Nadal wasn’t perfect in Monte Carlo. As he said, sometimes it “was tough to find that feeling.” Rafa double faulted service games away, over-rotated his forehand and left it in the net, failed to consolidate breaks and convert break points, and had trouble putting opponents away when he had the lead: The struggles of the last two years didn’t simply vanish in a week. The difference is, now, for the first time in a long time, he knows he can go through those struggles and still come through and beat top-level competition. He knows that when he has to have his forehand in a deciding set, it can still be there for him.

To me, the most impressive and important moment of Nadal’s tournament came in the second set of the final. Monfils reached break point by hitting a very Monfilsian jumping one-handed forehand up the line for a winner. What answer could Rafa possibly have for that? The same one he has always had: He came back with a strong, smart, safe topspin forehand of his own. He didn’t jump, he didn’t go for broke, and it wasn’t a spectacular winner, but it earned him the point, and eventually the game. There was something about the shot, and Nadal’s “Vamos!” afterward, that said he was going to find answer to this opponent and this match, no matter what. There was something about his play in Monte Carlo that said he was going to find an answer to his troubles of the last two seasons, no matter what.

“I hope this victory helps me a lot for the next couple of tournaments,” said the ever-cautious Rafa when it was over. He knows there’s a long way to go just to get to the next major. And I’m guessing he knows that, as of today, Djokovic is still the favorite to win that major. Nadal “showed something different” this week, but it doesn’t change the fact that Djokovic hasn’t dropped a set in his last six matches against him, or that he has won three of their last four meetings on clay. What does change is the conversation surrounding Paris: Rafa is in it again, and his name comes up right after Novak’s.

For the ninth time in the last 12 years, Monte Carlo ended with the Spanish flag being hoisted above the court as the nation’s anthem played. As the red-and-yellow colors rose, and the notes sounded out, I wondered: Was Djokovic at his home in the hills above, and if so, could he hear that familiar music playing again?