Monday, April 19, 2010

Return of the King

Photo: mitch98000

Nadal's Sixth Consecutive Monte Carlo Title is sure to strike fear in the hearts of his competition.

It has been a long 11 months since Rafael Nadal has clamped his pearly whites on a Championship trophy. After a dominating performance at one of his favorite events, that wait is now decidedly over.

Losing only 14 games in 5 matches, a rejuvenated Nadal has gone a long way towards reclaiming some of the mystique that was erased in Roland Garros last year, when Robin Soderling ended his clay court season with an eye-opening upset of improbably epic proportions.

Not only did Nadal lose the match to Soderling (and a chance for his fifth straight French Open title), he also became a little less invincible in the minds of the rest of the ATP's top ten in the process. And the effects lingered on. The once invincible Nadal succumbed to injuries shortly thereafter. He pulled out of Wimbledon, effectively putting the kabosh on another title defence, and he has struggled - with health, with confidence, with a new breed of tall and mighty ball strikers who seem unfazed by his heavy topspin and dazzling footwork - ever since.

Until now.

His dominant run in Monte Carlo represents more than just a hot week. This was Nadal moving forward, etching his name forever upon the lore of the game as the only player in the Open Era to have won any event six consecutive times. This was Nadal, still so young at 23, proving to the world that he is insatiably inclined to reclaim the aura of invincibility that surrounded him on clay a mere 12 months ago. This was text book Nadal: clay court tennis as only the indomitable Spaniard can do it, with panache, aggressiveness, but also a cruel and calculated efficiency that practically chokes his opponents into submission.

The long and the short of it was that this was the real deal, and the rest of the competition better be paying attention. Once again it appears that it will take a near Herculean - or should we say Soderling-like? - effort to defeat Nadal on the dirt.

But before we start pencilling in Nadal as a sure thing to run the table for the remainder of the clay court season, we must remember that something did change last year. Nadal may have proved to the world - and to his peers - that he is still capable of running roughshod over a whole tournament when he blasted through Monte Carlo like a construction worker with a jackhammer in his hands. But we already knew that he could do that last year. And in spite of all his dominating capacity, someone still found a way to beat him.

That is the one thing that will make this years clay court season more difficult for Nadal, as he tries to ride this newfound momentum train all the way to his fifth Roland Garros title. The fact of the matter is, no matter how much his aura grows over the next month or so, his arch rivals on tour will be able to take comfort in the fact that yes, he can be beaten.

As far as just what exactly it will take to beat him - well, he's certainly upped the ante with his magnificent Monte Carlo play. At times it seemed like Nadal was reading his opponents minds on the clay last week. As he patrolled the baseline it was never more apparent just how good Nadal is at anticipating his opponents shots. His fluidity and lateral movement coupled with his concentration and intuition make him the quintessential dirtballer. Hitting a winner against Nadal is the equivalent of hitting a home run in baseball. Trying to match strokes with Nadal is like trying to beat Paul Bunyan in a lumberjack competition.

In the end, only the strongest can make a dent in Nadal's armour when he is playing so free. Clearly energized by his return to the surface that he has grown up on, Nadal seems to be ready and willing - and healthy enough - to erase the bitter memories of his recent fall from clay invincibility.

By withdrawing from Barcelona in order to fully rest and recuperate, Nadal has demonstrated that he is committed to the long road to victory. A few years ago he had no idea where his limitations were. Now that he does, there's no reason why he can't reach the same level of domination that he once knew.

Then again, there's no reason to believe that some young gun might pull the shocker of the year just when we're all convinced that he can't lose.


  1. Go Nadal! Really looking forward to seeing him playing well this year. Funny, but you *DO* forget he's only 23 with all these young upstarts. Nice piece, man.

  2. I just watched a video of the 2005 Rome final where Nadal was 18 going on 19. He's was quite the phenom at that age, and he won in 5 sets over Coria. Thank god for Tennis Channel.

  3. I think he will do well on clay but as you said others know he is beatable. But in 2008, it was the rest of the season after the Olympics that was trouble. He won MC, Hamburg and Barca and RG but again he struggled at the US Open, and didn't play the Tour Championships or Davis Cup. So if he isn't vulnerable on clay he often appears to be vulnerable from the US Open on.
    BTW. I am assuming that is you "The Fan Child" that has been posting on "On the Baseline."

  4. Sunny: it is "I" indeed.

    Rafa is definitely not built for the hard courts, or I should say that Rafa is clearly built for the clay courts, and not as much for the hard - that being said, he's been a semifinalist at the U.S. Open twice in a row (with disappointing results albeit), but I think that he can break through in N.Y. if he is in good health.

    But this is Rafa's time of year, and Rome has him headed for a possible QF with Soderling and a possible SF with Fed, so his game will be tested perhaps a little more than it was in Monte Carlo.

    It's going to be a great week in rome - the draw is loaded.

  5. hello... hapi blogging... have a nice day! just visiting here....

  6. "The once invincible Nadal succumbed to injuries shortly thereafter."

    When do you think he injured himself between RG and Queen's? In his bathtub? He withdrew from defending his titles at Queen's and Wimbledon because his tendinitis finally caught up with him at Madrid and RG.

    Read his latest pressers at MC: he explains how the pain in his knees started to build up a year and a half ago, flaring up right at last MC. He said he didn't play well there last year (neither at Barcelona nor at Rome) but won all 3 nevertheless, until he almost couldn't run anymore come Madrid and RG.

    He also said he played incomparably better at this year's MC and feels fit now. And to remain fit, he skipped the defense of his title at Barcelona.

  7. It was a great call for Rafa to skip Barca - if he makes more prudent decisions with his scheduling from here on in he is going to be able to put up better results on a more consistent basis. And when he's not feeling great he can skip. In the end it'll make his career last longer and give him more chances for Grand-Slams.

    I actually think that Rafa's quest for hard court results were what really took a toll on his knees. I think the decision to retire against Murray in Australia, while disappointing, was one that showed Rafa's commitment to the longer term.

    Now, he's really hitting his stride. It's going to be a crazy spring.


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