“Everything about this is different,” Tennis Channel’s Brett Haber said halfway through Andrey Rublev’s 6-2, 4-6, 6-2 win over Rafael Nadal in the Monte Carlo quarterfinals on Friday. (Extended highlights above.)
The most obvious difference, of course, was the result, which was full of firsts. Rublev recorded his first win in three tries against Nadal, and he became the first player in 16 years to beat Rafa in their first meeting on clay. Nadal lost before the semifinals at Monte Carlo, one of his traditional hunting grounds, for just the third time in 17 trips.
But the deviations from the Nadal-on-clay norm went beyond the scoreline. This is one of the few times over the course of his long career when Rafa looked thoroughly human on the surface. It began with his serve. He double faulted to lose the opening game, and did the same to go down a break at 2-3. By the end of the first set, Nadal had doubled seven times. It was as much of a mystery to him as it was to us.
“For some reason I had problems with my serve. I don’t understand why because I was not having problems in the practices at all. But today was one of the these days that my serve was a disaster,” Nadal said, with characteristic bluntness.
When the serve goes, the rest of a player’s game often follows, and so it was with Rafa today. He lost the range on his backhand, smothering topspin drives into the net and floating routine slices long. The frustration showed more clearly than it usually does with him. He stared at his player’s box, hands on hips. He banged a ball into the net in anger. He screamed at himself. Longtime Rafa watchers may have wondered if we were finally going to see a racquet smash from him, but he stayed true to form and resisted. Things did get bad enough that Nadal’s coaches and family could be heard urging him on, much more loudly than they normally do.
“The serve creates an impact on the rest of the game,” Nadal said. “When you serve with no confidence, you are just focus on try to serve, not think about how you want to play the ball. You just think about what you have to do with the serve to put the ball in. Then you have problems continue and prepare the point the right way, no?”
For the first 14 games, Rublev took full advantage of his opponent’s surprising lapse. He pushed Rafa back with his forehand, and drilled it into the corners for winners. When he went up 6-2, 4-2, break point, the match looked all but over.
But Rafa wasn’t quite ready to let this one go. He saved that break point with a forehand winner, and, after much effort, he finally began to connect on his backhand. He broke with a running forehand pass for 4-4, then broke again for the set. After being all but out of it 20 minutes earlier, Rafa looked like a lock to pull off a comeback win.
Now it was Rublev’s turn to do something different. In the past, he might have slammed his racquet and torn his shirt in rage after blowing such a golden opportunity. Instead, he just kept playing, with no major show of frustration.
“If after the second set I would say something or if I would show emotions, for sure the third set will be over, will be 6-2 for him,” Rublev said. “So I’m happy that I could handle it.”
His level-headedness paid off right away, when he broke Nadal in the opening game of the third set and stopped his momentum cold. From there Rublev was in command again, dominating the rallies with his forehand and keeping Rafa pinned behind the baseline. Even when he went down 15-30 in the final game, Rublev looked calmly confident, and for good reason—he closed with an ace and a forehand winner.
“In my head, of course I was a bit disappointed,” Rublev said of his failure to close out the match in the second set. “But still I was accepting this. I was a bit ready for this. I just tell to myself, OK, just keep playing the same way and we'll see what’s going to happen.
“Probably inside I understood that something is going to change. It cannot be like this all the match. If it’s like this all the match, then I don’t know, probably Rafa had his worst day of his life.”
This was far from Rafa’s best, and yet outside of Roland Garros, he hasn’t been quite as dominant on clay in recent years. Since 2018, he’s won just one of the run-up events to the French Open—Rome in 2019—and has lost to Fabio Fognini, Diego Schwartzman, Stefanos Tsitsipas and now Rublev. None of those are terrible defeats, and so far he has had no problem righting the ship in Paris, which is what counts. Not surprisingly, Nadal says he’s determined to right it again this spring.
“He played well, he deserve more than me,” Nadal said of Rublev. “I fighted, yeah. That’s the positive thing, I was there. But you can’t expect win against a player like him losing my serve I don’t know how many times, but too many.
“The only thing that I can do is go to Barcelona and keep practicing, keep practicing, try to fix the things that didn't work well.”
While Rafa heads for Barcelona, Rublev moves on to the semifinals, and what could be a breakthrough week for him. He’ll be joined there by Tsitsipas, Dan Evans, and his opponent, Casper Ruud.
Everything about Monte Carlo really is different this time around.