The King of Clay reigns again at Monte Carlo

That relentless perfectionism epitomises the mind of Nadal, especially this inimitable champion.

Rafael Nadal in action during a match at the Barcelona Open.   -  AFP

In the 1980s, tour players used to quip, “There are only three sure things in life: death, taxes, and Swedish passing shots” — a tribute to champions Bjorn Borg and Mats Wilander and their acolytes.

This century, tour players, especially the legendary Roger Federer, soberly concede, “The greatest challenge in tennis is beating Rafael Nadal on clay in a best-of-five-set match.”

As Kei Nishikori learned once again in the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters final, it’s a Herculean task even in a two-of-three-set match. To no one’s surprise, Nadal out-hit and out-rallied the Japanese speedster 6-3, 6-2.

Before the final, Nishikori sounded almost resigned to his likely fate, saying “He’s been dominating crazy this week. On clay he’s the king.”

Indeed, Nadal had allowed his four previous opponents no more than four games in a set and no more than five games in a match.

Tournament organisers also anticipated the almost inevitable. After Nadal routed world No. 5 Grigor Dimitrov 6-4, 6-1 in the predictable semifinal, a bunch of ball kids were practicing a routine with the number 11 on the court. That “11” refers to what a day later marked the Spaniard’s mind-boggling record as the first man in the Open Era to win the same title 11 times.

Of course, he broke his own record of 10, which, incredibly, he had also achieved at the French Open and Barcelona Open. The Monte Carlo triumph gave Nadal his 31st Masters title, breaking the record he had shared with Novak Djokovic. It may seem like small potatoes because Nadal owns so many record winning streaks—such as 81 straight on clay from 2005 to 2007—but he’s currently won 36 straight sets on clay, a career-best for him.

Is it possible that Nadal, who turns 32 on June 3, is playing his best tennis ever?

“His backhand has been phenomenal in this tournament,” raved Tennis Channel analyst Justin

Gimelstob, about a shot long considered much inferior to his incomparable forehand. He ranks among the elite volleyers. His first serve peaked at 130mph, far above the 110 to 115 mph he typically averages. His court position has improved to the point where he dictates most rallies from very close to the baseline. And for the most part, his shot selection is impeccable. As Tennis Channel analyst Mary Carillo said, “Rafa just breaks your will and makes you question your skill.”

Besides his complete game and superb fitness, Nadal’s competitive fire is burning just as fiercely as it did 15 years ago when he burst on the tennis scene with pirate pants and sleeveless shirts. “These kind of things are not going to happen forever,” he said. “So [I] just try to play with the full passion and with the full energy and concentration, full love for the sport as long as I can.”

Two Other Themes

The last two players to beat Nadal on clay—Djokovic in the 2016 Rome quarterfinals 7-5, 7-6, and Dominic Thiem in the 2017 Rome quarterfinals 6-4, 6-3—met in the Monte Carlo fourth round. Djokovic served at 3-3, 40-15 in the deciding set, but the 24-year-old Austrian prevailed 6-7, 6-2, 6-3.

Thiem’s powerful first serve and wickedly spinning second serve proved superior to Djokovic’s renowned return of serve, as did his explosive forehand to Djokovic’s formidable backhand.

Dominic Thiem returns to Slovakia's Jozef Kovalik during the Barcelona Open.   -  AP

 

Djokovic, who is yet to regain the form that produced 12 Grand Slam titles, was nonetheless heartened by his performance. “It was quite close,” he said. “I felt like in the beginning of the second set and third set I had my chances and I didn’t use them, and after that he was a better player. But, of course, I wish that I could have played certain points and shots a bit different, but at the same time I have to understand that realistically I’m still not at that level. I’m getting to [it], I’m feeling like it’s been getting better every day. I’ve had three matches here, I didn’t expect anything. I played without pain in the elbow which is important.”

If the gruelling victory proved Thiem is clearly among the top three players on clay, his next match against Nadal also showed how large the gap remains between them. It also posed a big question. Can a righty with a one-handed backhand—think Federer, Thiem, Dimitrov, and Stan Wawrinka—beat lefty Nadal on clay? Rarely. In the quarterfinals, Thiem’s backhand, which is produced with a long backswing and often from an untenably deep position, was repeatedly exploited by Nadal’s forehand. More than a mismatch, it turned into a 6-0, 6-2 massacre.

The characteristically modest Nadal even acknowledged, “I played great. I played so well this afternoon, playing very aggressive, backhand, forehand, serve. I’m defending well, returning well. It is difficult to play better than today. It was my best match of the tournament so far and one of the best matches I have played on clay.”

By his own highly exacting standards, Nadal was dissatisfied with his semifinal thrashing of Dimitrov. So much so that he immediately texted his coach, Carlos Moya, to book a court that afternoon to work rigorously on his breadwinner. “I wanted to hit some forehand winners that I think I need for tomorrow,” explained Nadal.

That relentless perfectionism epitomises the mind of a champion, especially this inimitable champion. As 18-time major winner Chris Evert once said, “You’re always striving to play that perfect match.”

Bryan Brothers Bounce Back

Inspiring comebacks have spiced up the competition on both tours during the past 16 months.

Nadal and Federer succeeded in spades. Djokovic and Maria Sharapova largely failed. Nishikori, Petra Kvitova, and Victoria Azarenka are works in progress. Andy Murray, sidelined after hip surgery, has yet to return. Considering their age and decline, the recent resurgence of doubles stars Bob and Mike Bryan ranks among the most noteworthy comebacks.

Just a week shy of their 40th birthday, the American identical twins, who hadn’t won a major since the 2014 US Open and had dropped out of the top 10, captured their sixth Monte Carlo doubles title.

Mike Bryan and Bob Bryan after their 100th career title win, defeating Marcel Granollers and Marc Lopez at the 2014 US Open.   -  AFP

 

Despite Bob’s sore hip, the Bryans edged three teams in deciding-set super tiebreakers before defeating Australian Open champions Oliver Marach and Mate Pavic 7-6, 6-3 in the final. Crucially they’ve grabbed 10 of their last 11 super tiebreakers, including three while winning the Miami Open three weeks earlier. As their mother, the former Kathy Blake, a 1960s Tour player, often says, “You win tiebreakers, you win tournaments.”

Monte Carlo gave Bob and Mike 38 Masters 1000 crowns, far ahead of Nadal’s 31, and 116 career titles, surpassing Jimmy Connors’ Open Era record 109 and far ahead of Federer’s 97. And here’s another prestigious record the Big 3 in singles will likely never break: the Bryans boast 10 year-end No. 1 rankings.

Besides their host of records, including a team record of 16 majors, the colorful Bryans have exuded a crowd-pleasing zest for the game. They often jumped for joy after winning big points with celebratory chest bumps. Far less renowned than Federer, who recently graced the cover of TIME magazine’s “100 Most Influential People” issue, Bob and Mike also have a legacy that will endure. As doubles ambassadors giving clinics and concerts at tournaments around the world, they have sparked interest in doubles this century and become its greatest of all time (GOAT) team.

And just like Federer, they’re the most popular. For the past 13 years—every year the award has existed—the Bryan brothers have been voted the ATPWorldTour.com’s Fans’ Favorite Doubles Team.