Monday, April 23, 2012

Nadal Looks Solid in Clay Court Opener

Nadal stretching for a forehand.
Photo: Reuters
Rafael Nadal defeated Novak Djokovic in straight sets on Sunday, winning a remarkable eighth consecutive title at the Rolex Masters in Monte-Carlo.

Nadal's reign on the red dirt courts of Monte-Carlo is unprecedented in tennis. Since he entered the tournament for the first time in 2005, his unbelievable match record is an undefeated 42-0.

With the victory, Nadal earned his record 20th ATP Masters 1000 title, giving him one more Masters shield than rival tennis great Roger Federer. Even more importantly for Nadal, the Spaniard's win on Sunday snapped a seven match losing skid against Djokovic, the world's top-ranked player.

The 6-3, 6-1 scoreline in the final was impressive, and Nadal's play was solid throughout the match. In classic clay court grinder style, Nadal ran Djokovic all over the court, and he broke the Serb's serve five times in two sets. His energetic, aggressive, and consistently high level play on Sunday looked a lot like...old Nadal.

Having said that, before we re-install Nadal on his clay court throne, there are two important asterisks that should appear next to Rafa's tournament results.

First, there was (again) no Roger Federer in Monte-Carlo. The Swiss master is enjoying a few weeks away from the ATP tour, choosing to tone up on the clay courts in his native Switzerland, and resting up for the upcoming European tour swing through Madrid, Rome, and ultimately Paris.

Novak and his grandfather.
Photo: CBS / 60 Minutes
The second noteworthy factor relevant to Nadal's performance, particularly in the final, was the unfocused and distracted play of Novak Djokovic.

Despite the death of his grandfather in Serbia on Thursday, Djokovic stayed in Monte-Carlo and finished out the week, but the performance of the Serbian superstar was understandably impacted.

Djokovic, whose hallmark in the last sixteen months has been remarkable consistency and focus, sprayed balls all over court, making numerous errors off both the forehand and backhand wings. His reaction to tight moments throughout the match was uncharacteristically low-intensity. With such an emotional week off the court, it appeared the Serb simply lacked the conviction needed to dig deep, in the way players must if they expect to win against someone like Nadal.

Several weeks ago I asked if Rafael Nadal would be able to regain the clay court crown he wore for so many years, prior to the de-throning he suffered last spring at the hands of Djokovic. Based on his results at the Rolex Masters in Monte-Carlo, the answer is an optimistic maybe. Nadal looked sharp throughout the tournament, and he didn't drop a set all week. His victory over Djokovic, while somewhat marred by the circumstances, still served as a significant boost to his confidence and self-belief.

The challenges he faces in re-establishing his clay court dominance are formidable though, and not entirely different from the challenges he posed in recent years to Roger Federer. As Nadal successfully battled his way through years of Federer mystique and domination, so now, has Novak Djokovic successfully shattered the myth of Nadal's regal invincibility on clay. Taking back his crown won't be easy, but Nadal is off to a solid start.

Rafa did exactly what he needed to do this week in Monte-Carlo to begin the reclamation of his clay court kingdom, but the road to Roland Garros is long and winding, and a still-hungry Roger Federer and a renewed Novak Djokovic stand between the Spaniard and his throne.

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