Monday, April 19, 2010
Return of the King
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.
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.