And so it begins. Like a pendulum swinging one direction, the inevitable shift of momentum starts almost the moment the first ball hits the dust on the hallowed courts above the Mediterranean, in Monte Carlo.
For Rafael Nadal it wasn't the same as a year ago. Then, he raced through the draw, losing a mere 13 games en route to the finals where he eviscerated compatriot Fernando Verdascoe with ease while losing only one game.
That win and tournament was easier, this one was more satisfying, and in certain respects, better than last year.
While Nadal's form certainly wasn't as amazing as some say it was a year ago, he also faced a substantially better group of players who actually managed to push Nadal hard at times which will only serve to harden him for the rest of the clay season.
It also gives Nadal something to strive for. If last year was the high point in his clay season form, he played the rest of the season striving to live up to it, while now he will be attempting to better what he's done so far.
Not bad after losing one set to Andy Murray in that excellent semifinal match.
So, with a 6-4, 7-5 hard-fought victory over fountain-of-youth-drinking David Ferrer, Nadal completes the first leg of the clay season. While some may say players are making inroads against Nadal on clay, I wonder if the decent uppercut given was the best he might receive this year?
Anyone who follows tennis knows that Monte Carlo is where Nadal starts his mid-season demolition that begins there and ends with Wimbledon.
Monte Carlo is about finding where he is form-wise and going on to maintain the high level needed to win his two favorite tournaments; Roland Garros and Rafa's hallowed Wimbledon title.
To some, however, Nadal's true form and direction for the season won't be known until he faces red hot Serbian, Novak Djokovic. It's true that Nadal's biggest test may come, but not facing Novak until Madrid gives him a chance to gain the necessary momentum needed to make it through that test and possibly end or significantly slow down Djokovic's own forward progress.
It won't be easy, and this may not be considered Nadal's best clay court campaign even if he wins every tournament through Roland Garros, but it might just be his most satisfying.
Regardless, at the moment Nadal has managed to win a seventh straight title at an event as old as almost any tournament around. With each successive year, Nadal etches himself deeper into the bedrock and courts that make up Monte Carlo's grounds.
I wonder if one day, a court might be named after Nadal in honor of his achievements. Maybe this place is the one for him, for who could possibly match what he's done and may continue to do in the next three to five years here.
So let's give Rafael Nadal his due, as always, on his surface.
Great he may be on any other surface, but on clay it goes without saying that in the history of the game, and maybe in the history to come, no player may ever match up to Rafael Nadal, the King of Clay.
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