It’s April, and it’s the red clay of the European swing. So it has to be Rafael Nadal.
Though some players fitted in tournaments on the red stuff in Latin America in February, this is where the clay season takes centre stage, and what a stage!
The first of the terracotta Masters is held at the Monte Carlo Country Club, with the Mediterranean as its backdrop.
It is hosted by royalty: Prince Albert of Monaco was flanked by Boris Becker and three-time Monte Carlo champion Ilie Nastase. Meanwhile, Nadal held court before them, leading a phalanx of no fewer than 11 Spanish players in a draw of 56.
The weather offered up some challenges: dust storms, rain, sometimes both together. Through it all, five Spaniards made the quarterfinals, three of them went on to the semis, and two fought it out in the final.
The result had a certain inevitability about it. Nadal had ruled here for the last five years and it was a fitting place for him to take his first Masters title in 11 months.
The strength and depth of the Spanish contingent also means that this week’s Power Rankings have a certain inevitability, too. There are five in the top dozen, with two topping the field.
The Top 10
1. Rafael Nadal (Last Power Ranking: 4; ATP Ranking: 3)
Last Four Tournaments: Monte Carlo [Winner]; Miami [Semifinals]; Indian Wells [Semifinals]; Australian Open [Quarterfinals]
Power Ranking Points: 1,222
Nadal was already showing signs of his old form during the North American Masters, looking fitter than he has done in months. Indeed he seems to have regained some of the shoulder bulk he lost at the end of 2009.
Coming back to clay is like sinking into a warm bath for Nadal, and his performance throughout Monte Carlo showed him at his fearsome best. He lost just 14 games in the tournament, the fewest he’s dropped on his way to a title. And his sixth Monte Carlo title in a row marked the first time a player has achieved such a run in a single tournament.
Nadal is now equal with Roger Federer in Masters titles—16—and just one short of Andre Agassi’s record. He could match that in a fortnight in Rome. But more significant, the style of his victory this week will strike fear in the hearts of all-comers on the road to Roland Garros.
2. Fernando Verdasco (Last Power Ranking: NR; ATP Ranking: 9)
Last Four Tournaments: Monte Carlo [Finals]; Miami [Quarterfinals]; Indian Wells [R32]; Acapulco [Quarterfinals]
Power Ranking Points: 680
The Madrid pin-up made a career break-through in Monte Carlo almost on a par with his semifinal performance in last year’s Australian Open and qualifying for the WTFs. Fernando Verdasco has been promising to move up a notch following decent results on the hard courts of Melbourne, San Jose, and Miami, but who would have thought it would come at a clay Masters? After all, last year he was stopped short at the quarterfinals of five Masters events, including all three of the clay tournaments.
Looking a little leaner, a little more confident, and a little less nervous, he stayed patient in long rallies with Novak Djokovic, played the big points well, and threw in a pleasing variety of drops, lobs, and backhand slices. The combination took him to his first Masters final but, sadly, he did not replicate that game plan against Nadal. Treated for a neck injury part way into the first set, he struggled to find his first serve and his forward movement.
That said, Nadal looked a class above his compatriot in every department. Verdasco’s progress, though, will surely give him heart for the coming tournaments.
3. Andy Roddick (Last Power Ranking: 1; ATP Ranking: 7)
Last Four Tournaments: Miami [Winner]; Indian Wells [Finals]; Memphis [Quarterfinals]; San Jose [Finals]
Power Ranking Points: 478
Following his outstanding North American run, Andy Roddick joined a substantial list of top-12 players not to make the journey to Monte Carlo. A rest will help him recharge his batteries for the very different conditions of the clay Masters, where he has relatively few points to defend.
His results in the coming weeks will probably not concern him too much as he sees the grass season beckoning, for surely Wimbledon will be his main target over the next couple of months. The great form and evolving tactical game he used in Miami will stand him in good stead as he prepares to try and go one better at the big one in July.
4. David Ferrer (Last Power Ranking: 9; ATP Ranking: 17)
Last Four Tournaments: Monte Carlo [Semifinals]; Miami [R16]; Indian Wells [R128]; Acapulco [Winner]
Power Ranking Points: 455
David Ferrer switched back into his best clay-court mode after a poor run in the hard court Masters. With a couple of excellent results behind him in Latin America, he built on his confidence with a semifinal showing in Monaco. He was then beaten by a surging Nadal, but Ferrer managed to take five games: more than any of Nadal’s other opponents except Ferrero (who took six!).
Ferrer has plenty of opportunities to gain points up to and including the French Open. With his current form, and usual strong work ethic, look for him to trouble a few more players in the coming weeks.
5. Novak Djokovic (Last Power Ranking: OLI; ATP Ranking: 2)
Last Four Tournaments: Monte Carlo [Semifinals]; Miami [R64]; Indian Wells [R16]; Dubai [Winner]
Power Ranking Points: 444
After a tawdry time in recent weeks, where hard work was annulled by erratic shot making, Djokovic at last started to find his groove in Monte Carlo.
He is one of the best movers in the game, and the sliding surface of clay suits him well. He looked confident in taking out threatening players such as Stanislas Wawrinka and David Nalbandian, but started to look the worse for wear against Verdasco, apparently troubled by a cold but also by the retrieving and powerful hitting of the Spaniard. But it’s a good sign at last that the creative game of the Serb has started to return.
6. Tomas Berdych (Last Power Ranking: 2; ATP Ranking: 14)
Last Four Tournaments: Monte Carlo [R16]; Miami [Finals]; Indian Wells [Quarterfinals]; Memphis [Quarterfinals]
Power Ranking Points: 336
With a succession of great results from the North American hard courts, Tomas Berdych also managed to put on some points at his first clay event of the year.
Perhaps surprisingly for a tall, power player like Berdych, he had some success on clay last year, winning in Munich. If he harnesses his improved mobility and confidence for Rome and Madrid, he could not only gain points there but also anticipate Roland Garros with a little more optimism after his first round exit there last year.
7. Ivan Ljubicic (Last Power Ranking: 5; ATP Ranking: 15)
Last Four Tournaments: Monte Carlo [R16]; Miami [R128]; Indian Wells [Winner]; Dubai [Quarterfinals]
Power Ranking Points: 305
Back from injury after Miami, Ivan Ljubicic made a decent start to his clay season. He’s another big man with a majestic serve, quality volley, and deadly backhand slice. Though not the ideal tools for dismantling the best clay court players, the Ljubicic package is always a threat.
He did not play Rome last year and also went out in the first round of Roland Garros. He will need to pace his 31-year-old legs, but there is room for yet further progress up the rankings. Truly an Indian summer.
8. Juan Carlos Ferrero (Last Power Ranking: 10; ATP Ranking: 16)
Last Four Tournaments: Monte Carlo [Quarterfinals]; Miami [R16]; Indian Wells [R32]; Acapulco [Finalist]
Power Ranking Points: 257
Juan Carlos Ferrero, looking as lean and fit as when he won the Monte Carlo title in 2002 and 2003, built on his excellent run in the Latin American clay swing with a quarterfinal place this year. He beat fifth seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on the way to his run-in with Nadal, but held his own better than anyone else against the awesome champion.
Remarkably, Ferrero had to play qualifying rounds in Rome last year and failed to make the main draw. He also went out early in Madrid and in Roland Garros. He’s a different player this year. It’s been an inspirational comeback for the 30-year-old Spaniard.
9. Robin Soderling (Last Power Ranking: 3; ATP Ranking: 8)
Last Four Tournaments: Miami [Semifinals]; Indian Wells [Semifinals]; Marseille [Quarterfinals]; Rotterdam [Winner]
Power Ranking Points: 247
Robin Soderling pulled out of Monte Carlo citing the knee injury that started during Miami. His good results in North America, however, keep him buoyant in the rankings. He is scheduled to play Barcelona this week, which would be a useful test ahead of the bigger clay events.
On paper, he has a poor record in the clay season—but that record was blown out of the water by his defeat of a series of specialist top-12 clay-courters on the way to the French Open final last year. So if he’s fit, he’s a threat.
10. Stanislas Wawrinka (Last Power Ranking: NR; ATP Ranking: 26)
Last Four Tournaments: Monte Carlo [R16]; Casablanca [Winner]; Miami [R32]; Australian Open [R32]
Power Ranking Points: 238
After the Australian Open, Wawrinka took a break until Miami (except for the Davis Cup), became a father, and then announced his clay credentials in Casablanca with only his second ever ATP title—his first was back in 2006.
It is a welcome change in fortune for the unassuming Swiss No. 2. He may have hoped for a repeat of his 2009 giant-killing antics in Monte Carlo—he beat Federer for the only time and went on to the semifinals—but this year he fell to Djokovic. He didn’t shine in Rome, Madrid, or Roland Garros last year, and he will certainly have to find his best form to beat any of the sizzling Spanish ahead of him in the rankings.
Outside Looking In
Roger Federer (Last Power Ranking: 6; ATP Ranking: 1)
Power Ranking Points: 212
When was the last time that the mighty Swiss No. 1 slipped below his compatriot in any ranking? When, indeed, was the last time Federer was “outside looking in” in these Power Rankings? The answer to both is never.
Illness after his Australian Open victory took him out of the Tour in the run-up to the North American Masters, and his lack of match play showed in his results. All the more surprising, perhaps, that he opted out of any tournaments prior to the Rome Masters. Clay saw his return to form last year. But will he be able to defend his Madrid and Roland Garros titles with a rampant Nadal back to his best?
Nicolas Almagro (Last Power Ranking: 8; ATP Ranking: 34)
Power Ranking Points: 146
The talented but inconsistent Nicolas Almagro might have expected a stronger start to his clay season, though the records show that he didn’t go too deep into the European tournaments last spring either. On song, he can disrupt the best. But clay requires consistency, as all six of the compatriots above him in the rankings prove.
Verdasco found a way to step up a level, and Ferrero has found new physical resources. Almagro needs to do the same.
Mikhail Youzhny (Last Power Ranking: 7; ATP Ranking: 13)
Power Ranking Points: 138
Mikhail Youzhny has had a good season on the hard courts, and may not expect the same success on clay.
He’s struggled to score wins over top 20 players on clay in the past, so may not hit the heights again until later in the season. But his revival in 2010 has lifted the spirits for fans of all court tennis and the one-handed backhand. It would be good to see some of his wide-ranging skills in the mix, if not on clay at least on the grass that follows.