Rafael Nadal: Player of the Month for May 2010
It almost seemed unfathomable that Rafael Nadal's record on the slippery surface in Europe could improve.
Coming into this year's clay season, the workaholic Spaniard had already won four Roland Garros titles, and 10 Masters 1000 crowns on the dirt.
His disposition to dominate yet another clay season remained ever important, considering the down turn that his career had taken over the past year.
Flying into Monte Carlo after a close semifinal loss to Andy Roddick in Miami, Nadal's love affair with Monaco remained intact with a ridiculously low number of just 13 games lost throughout the event.
Hoisting the hardware in the Principality for a record sixth time, Nadal became the only player to ever win a Tour title six year's running. Defeating Juan Carlos Ferrero, David Ferrer, and Fernando Verdasco en-route, Nadal had firmly placed himself in pole position to prevail in Paris in five week's time.
Aided by the redesigning of his schedule in order to preserve the health of his knees, Nadal's decision to skip the Barcelona event would pay dividends in Roma.
Facing the toughest challenge of his clay romp in the semifinals against Ernests Gulbis, Nadal would later christen the new Roma Arena with his fifth title.
Playing at a slightly more human level in Italy then he did in Monte Carlo, Nadal's slump was clearly over, and a record tying 17th Masters 1000 title had become a reality.
Taking another week off before preparing himself for the altitude in Madrid, Nadal's toughest clay challenge of the season would be met with increased optimism.
Losing last year's final to an aggressive and full tilt Roger Federer, Nadal began his Madrid march rather tame, before increasing his will towards the tail-end of the event.
Nadal would lose his second set of the clay season to Nicolas Almagro in the semifinals; a match that was played under patience and caution by the higher ranked Spaniard.
Almagro's weight of shot and upper body strength were more than good enough to capture the first set, but Nadal's consistency and indefatigable ability to spit back the seemingly impossible from his opponent, would land him in his second straight final.
Setting up a decadent championship match with his chief rival of the past decade, Nadal's long-time game plan against Federer was engaged early.
Centering in on the one-hand backhand of the Swiss, Nadal would win more second serve points than Federer, while capturing one more break of serve at four to three.
Nadal's straight set victory over Federer would not only solidify his place as the Masters 1000 leader with 18 titles, but it also doubled his career head-to-head lead of the Grand Slam leader to 14 to seven.
Wiping the slate clean with three straight titles, Nadal would erupt on the draw at Roland Garros like the volcanic ash that had hindered Europe throughout the spring.
Encountering some testy moments against Thomaz Bellucci, Almagro, and Jurgen Melzer along the way, Nadal's moments of vulnerability were dealt with the composure and the experience of previous glory.
Playing with less margin at this year's French Open compared to previous appearances, Nadal's new-found, joint-saving game style would allow him to not face a set point throughout the fortnight.
Having 43 break points to defend throughout the event, Nadal would lose his serve a mere 11 times. Of those 43 break points that Nadal faced, the eight that he saved against his finals opponent Robin Soderling, were perhaps his most impressive.
Tangled in numerous Center Court rallies with the man who defeated him last year, Nadal deflated the high-rise hitting Swede in straight sets.
Deflecting the velocity of Soderling was never an easy task, considering his increased confidence which was found after defeating Federer in the quarterfinals.
But to Nadal's credit, and his ability to save his best for when he needed it the most, the Mallorcan once again proved that his reign in Paris will be difficult to end.
Embracing his towel after his victory in order to shield his tears of self reflection, Nadal's year of anguish and despair had finally been put to rest.
Nadal's rare display of emotion was perhaps my fondest memory of his 22-straight wins during the clay season. His ability to release the tension that had been built up from his personal struggles will allow him to play with ease and satisfaction for the remainder of the season.
I must be careful when using the word "satisfaction" to depict the nature of the Spaniard. Nadal has always been his own worse critic, and there's no doubt that he will be looking for even more success throughout the year.
I'll leave you with a quote from former Wimbledon champ Pat Cash, who spoke about a 14-year-old Nadal that he faced during an exhibition match in Mallorca.
Cash, never one to refrain from speaking his mind, assessed the future of his shy and explosive opponent after the match by saying: "This kid is going to be bloody good in the future; he has all the tools to succeed."
I guess it takes one champion to see the potential in another, even though sometimes the forecast becomes stronger than the creator.
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