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.