Rafael Nadal survived an early scare from upstart veteran Teymuraz Gabashvili before putting his clay-court mastery on display in a 6-4, 6-1 win to reach the third round of the 2014 Monte-Carlo Masters.
Gabashvili had already pulled off an upset in his opening match against 28th-ranked Gilles Simon. He proceeded to break Nadal in the first game of the match and immediately backed it up with a service hold to take a quick 2-0 lead.
Many players, especially those ranked outside the top 50 like Gabashvili, are lucky to win two games in an entire set against Nadal on clay. The eight-time French Open champion is virtually unstoppable on the surface when at his best.
The key moment in the first set came with Nadal serving at 3-1 following a pair of holds. The Russian journeyman had a look to secure a double-break advantage and failed to convert. Nadal held and started turning the set around from there.
Live Tennis noted Gabashvili may look back at his decision to attempt a winner down the line with the top-ranked Spaniard at net as mental error and missed opportunity:
Gabashvili had a point for a double break and couldn't convert - might regret going down the line with Nadal at net. 3-2 Gabashvili.— Live Tennis (@livetennis) April 16, 2014
Unsurprisingly, Nadal broke back to level the first set at 3-3 right after that failed double-break chance by Gabashvili. It illustrated how quickly an upset bid can slip away as the underdog went from having the opening set in his grasp to even in the blink of an eye.
Gabashvili stepped to the service line to keep the set alive after three straight holds to give Nadal the 5-4 edge. He couldn't do it. Nadal elevated his level of play, got the break and emerged with the set victory despite some shaky moments early.
TennisTV provided the stats from the first set:
You could almost sense the match was over at the point. Gabashvili had his glimmer of hope when he was up 3-1 with a break point and once that slipped away the confidence was seemingly gone, which allowed Nadal to take complete control.
How far will Nadal advance in Monte Carlo?
The No. 1 player in the world, who won this event eight straight times before Novak Djokovic ended that remarkable run last year, scored an early break in the second set and never looked back. Gabashvili continued to fight, but a comeback was never in the cards.
Nadal cruised to the finish line by taking the second set 6-1.
Ultimately, it's probably fair to chalk up the early scare to Nadal getting acclimated to clay again. The Monte-Carlo Masters marks just his second tournament on the surface this season and first since the Rio de Janeiro event in February, which he won. It was also his first match after a first-round bye.
Kamakshi Tandon of Tennis.com passed along comments from Nadal before the tournament about the adjustment period when transitioning back to clay:
Let's not forget I only play five or six tournaments on clay a year. The rest of the time I play on hard courts. I do not practice on clay, so I need time to make adjustments to my game to find my rhythm. I have to learn once again how to set up points to achieve victory.
It took him until about halfway through the opening set, but he eventually found his usual groove and Gabashvili was unable to keep up once he did. Nadal won 11 of 13 games after falling behind 3-1 to make the scoreline look easier than the match actually was.
Up next, Nadal will face off with Andreas Seppi, who's already eliminated Mikhail Youzhny and Pablo Andujar. They have played five previous matches with Nadal winning four of them, including all three on clay. The most recent encounter was all the way back in 2009, though.
A potential tricky clash with David Ferrer would loom if Nadal advances past Seppi, which he should. But assuming Nadal plays like he did over the final 13 games against Gabashvili, he's likely on a championship rematch collision course with Djokovic.