“It’s my favourite part of the season,” Rafael Nadal said on the opening day of the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters. And it is easy to see why.
The world No. 1 is bidding to win the tournament for a ninth time, and given his incredible dominance in the principality it is difficult to look beyond the Spaniard to add another Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters trophy to his ever-growing cabinet.
Cast your minds back 12 months ago and Nadal was outclassed by Novak Djokovic in the final. Nadal’s eight-year winning streak in Monte Carlo was ended by an outstanding and near-flawless display from Djokovic in straight sets.
Nadal, the undisputed King of Clay, eventually got his revenge on Djokovic by beating him in the semi-finals of the 2013 French Open en route to the trophy, recovering from a breakdown to win the fifth and deciding set, 9-7.
That victory for Nadal paved the way for him to register his best-ever season as he went on to lift the U.S. Open and end 2013 as the world No. 1 along with 10 titles to his name.
With 43 of his 62 career titles coming on the red dirt, Nadal is almost like a kid in a candy shop when it comes to the clay-court season coming into full swing, which made Djokovic’s achievement last year even more incredible as one of the greatest runs in sport came to an abrupt end.
On Wednesday, in booking his place in the last 16, Nadal demonstrated in his 6-4, 6-1 victory over Teymuraz Gabashvili that he means business this week in Monte Carlo. Under pressure at the start when falling a break behind at 3-1 in the opening set and facing a double break, Nadal dug deep in his usual way to recover. Once he was able to get a firm grip on the match, he easily brushed his opponent to one side.
Likewise, in securing a quarter-final spot Nadal comfortably breezed past Andreas Seppi 6-1, 6-3.
With events in Barcelona, Rome and Madrid to come before he embarks on a ninth French Open crown, Nadal feels very much at home, as he highlighted prior to his opening match in Monte Carlo.
“All the tournaments I’m going to play in this next month-and-a-half, I love it. I feel comfortable in every city, in every tournament,” he said.
Roger Federer’s participation in Monte Carlo has spiced up the event, with Nadal and Djokovic waiting to see in which side of the draw the Swiss maestro would be. Djokovic and Federer would be on course for a semi-final clash, leaving the door open for Nadal to reach the final, but he could face one obstacle along the way.
David Ferrer is waiting in the quarter-finals for Nadal. Against fellow Spaniard Ferrer he has won 21 of the 26 matches. It's highly unlikely Nadal will face stiff competition from an opponent he clearly has the measure of.
Current Australian Open champion Stanislas Wawrinka is the man who could threaten to derail Nadal’s quest for another triumph in Monte Carlo if they clash in the last four.
The top-ranked Swiss defeated Nadal in the Australian Open final to get his hands on his maiden major, although the outcome may have been different had Nadal not suffered from back spasms.
Wawrinka may be struggling to deal with the tag of being a Grand Slam champion, but since January, when he stunned Nadal, and up until now he has had plenty of time to adjust to being the hunted rather than the hunter.
Possessing one of the great delights in the sport with that smooth one-handed backhand, Wawrinka could inflict another defeat on Nadal if the latter is not up to the task.
Djokovic has won the last four ATP Masters 1000 events, in Shanghai, Paris, Indian Wells and Miami, as well as the World Tour Finals at London’s O2 Arena last November.
But as this is the time of the year where Nadal raises his game on a surface on which he is the best, there will be no stopping the Spaniard this week as he is fuelled by the desire to reclaim his Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters crown.