“He’s always the same,” Feliciano Lopez once said of Rafael Nadal. Rafa’s friend and Davis Cup teammate described him as perpetually upbeat and friendly. “Like a kid”—minus the mood swings.
Lopez made this comment a few years ago, but it felt more relevant than ever on Sunday. That’s when Nadal beat another of his countrymen, Albert Ramos-Vinolas 6-1, 6-3 for this 10th title in Monte Carlo, the most by any man at a single tournament in the Open era. When the match was over, Rafa and the rest of the crowd watched a video looking back at his 10 wins. Once the long hair of his youth had been shed, it was hard to tell one trophy ceremony from the next.
But this Sunday’s match was a bigger occasion than most. Along with his 10th championship in Monte Carlo, he was going for his 50th clay-court title, which would break a tie with Guillermo Vilas for the most by a male player. Just as important, Nadal was trying to win his first tournament of 2017, after three runner-up finishes. Yet Rafa went to work as he always has. Few players wall themselves off so completely from everything around them.
The ancient rituals were intact. He placed the water bottles just so. He cleaned the baseline with his foot at the start of every return game. Before each serve, he bounced the ball the same number of times as he wiped the sweat from his face. These customs are often and easily mocked, but they help keep Nadal’s mind narrowly focused on the task at hand, and keep him marching to a familiar rhythm.
There was a familiar rhythm to Nadal’s play in this match as well, but it came with a slight variation. Since Ramos-Vinolas is a fellow lefty, Rafa pounded his forehands inside-out, rather than crosscourt, to get them into his opponent’s backhand. Aside from that, Nadal’s clay-court arsenal was as complete as it was in 2006, when he beat Roger Federer in the final, or 2010, when he lost just 14 games en route to the trophy.
There was the dipping forehand pass. There was the look-one-way, hit-it-another flick crosscourt forehand pass. There were the down-the-line winners from both wings that are always an indicator of confidence. There were good serves when he needed them. There was the vintage, masterful way he has of working the angles of the court and creating openings.
But there were also the usual signs of the human beneath the dirt-loving machine. Nadal shanked easy second-serve returns on a few crucial points, and, serving at 4-3 in the second set, two games from the match, he went down 0-30. Were his three final-round losses from earlier this year—including one to Sam Querrey—in his head?
Instead of letting those losses get to him, Nadal did one more thing that he has always done, and which has always separated him from the pack: When he gets nervous and needs a point, he gets more aggressive. In recent years, he could overdo that aggression, but so far in 2017 he has found the right balance, and he found it against Ramos-Viñolas. From 0-30, Nadal won a point with two strong forehands; hit a backhand down-the-line winner; hit a crosscourt forehand winner; and snapped an ace out wide to hold.
“It really is unbelievable,” Nadal said. “To win 10 times at such an important event like Monte Carlo is difficult to describe my feelings. Every year has been a different feeling. At the same time, it’s always a unique moment, every time.”
This win wasn’t Nadal’s biggest. He said afterward that it’s a time to be happy and satisfied, but the celebrations will come if and when he wins his 10th French Open in June. While Rafa was very good in Monte Carlo, he didn’t beat Federer, or world No. 1 Andy Murray, or his nemesis Novak Djokovic. Those challenges can wait for another week. Winning for a 10th time at one tournament, and breaking Vilas’s 30-year-old ATP clay-title mark, are significant record-book milestones, even for the king of dirt.
And while Nadal said this wasn’t the moment to celebrate, he did take an extra few extra seconds to talk about his journey in Monte Carlo, from a 16-year-old qualifier in 2003 to a 30-year-old, 10-time champion in 2017.
“Thanks to life,” Rafa said, looking upward, “for giving me this great opportunity.”
Thanks to life; thanks to his own life, and how consistently he has lived it. Even with his unprecedented success on clay, and his reputation as the best male player on that surface secure, Nadal still wants to win every tournament on it as desperately as ever. The surest sign of spring in tennis is the sight of Rafa bouncing back from whatever struggles he has endured over the course of the year and dominating again. Nothing in the last 14 years has dimmed that desire.
Nadal says each title in Monte Carlo has felt different. But you don’t reach La Décima without playing the same way—as if every match is your last, and every win is your first.