Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer & the Dirt Debates: What Monte Carlo Means
There is, arguably, no better parallel in professional tennis than the picturesque, azure Monaco seaside and the hustling and grinding that occurs on the red clay at the Monte Carlo Masters. Both equally striking, equally beautiful—one enveloped in a shroud of calm, the other a whirlwind of furious activity. And just as the brilliance of the Mediterranean Sea will never change, seemingly neither will the champion of Monaco's premier tennis tournament. For the seventh year running, Rafael Nadal captured the Monte Carlo crown—asserting himself, once again, as the guy to beat on the warpath to Roland Garros. Before we write off the entire clay season in Nadal's name, however, I thought it interesting to take a deeper look at the implications this week's tourney has for the next couple months.
It's unfathomable to think the man's only been dominating this surface for six years—doesn't it feel like 60? Until this week, the '11 season had Novak Djokovic's ear-to-ear smile plastered all over it. But even the Serb is set to join his counterparts in entering Rafa's terre battue danger zone—where points don't end, aces get returned and winners are more scarce than a Robin Soderling smile.
It's easy to quote the stats that accompanied the Mallorcan's latest clay court feat: an unprecedented seventh straight Monte Carlo crown, a smashing 19th Masters trophy, a 44th title overall. But his road to seventh heaven was far from routine. A three-hour struggle against Andy Murray in the penultimate round didn't do Nadal any favors against Ferrer in the finals, where he squeaked out a tight 6-4, 7-5 win.
And while I never got the sense while watching the two countrymen do battle that Ferrer was even close to winning one of those sets, Nadal admitted afterward to feeling tired and tight—no wonder, considering he's been title-less since October and just lost two very close Masters final in a row.
If Nadal had somehow succumbed to his exhaustion and nerves in the heart of paradise (a ridiculous prospect, but try to suspend your belief), it would have let free an inordinate amount of questions from the esteemed tennis media (read: dripping with sarcasm) and might have even given his competitors a glimmer of hope in the upcoming few months. But alas, he won. Again. And we mere mortals averted a sign of the apocalypse. See you in Barca, O King.
Bottom Line: A perfect place to end a six month title drought and re-establish his dominance of the ATP.
I'd be damned if I didn't admit I thought Fed was going to go real deep in this tournament. The beat-down he took from Rafa in Miami seemed to be the perfect motivator, and he looked strong in opening rounds against Kohlschreiber and Cilic.
But under the aggressive barrage of (world No. 9!) Jurgen Melzer, Fed wilted. Shanks were free-flowing, break points came and disappeared in a flash and he seemed to not only lack energy, but the will to fight. After the match, he was unusually flippant—essentially attributing the win to Melzer's lucky shots (not the first time a former No. 1 has done so).
Federer's run in Monte Carlo essentially summed up his year thus far: trouncing the lower opposition, but falling with apparent ease whenever an elite player steps up his game. All eyes are going to be on him during the next couple Masters Series events, where his clay-court play generally improves. As a diehard fan, I hope it does. Show them the slippage isn't true, Rog!
Bottom Line: A sloppy loss boosts hopes of cleaner, more well-constructed play in Madrid and Rome.
Finally, Andy Murray snapped out of his funk. Maybe all the Royal Wedding talk has distracted him from recent on-court matters. Or those promises from his Mum about getting porcelain veneers...
But I guess it could be the embarrassing beat-down at the hands of Djokovic in the Aussie Open final that's lingered in Murray's mind the past couple months. Two years of winnable championship bouts Down Under haven't gone Murray's way, and the vicious British press—with their flashy tabloids, harrowing bad breath and Mt. Everest-high hopes—have hounded the poor bugger unrelentingly for his performances. If there was ever a way to get back in their good graces, however, it'd be beating King Rafa on clay—which Murray very nearly did in Monte Carlo. "Very nearly," in this case, can be defined as "taking Nadal to three sets"—perhaps not too impressive, but a rarity nonetheless.
Joking aside, Murray put on a brave show against Nadal in Monaco. He was injected with a cortisone shot before the match even started just so he could play, took a painful-looking medical timeout down 0-3 in the third and still didn't throw in the towel. The final product, a 6-4, 2-6, 6-1 tussle, took an impressive three hours to complete. Judging on how he recovers from injury, the tournament bodes well for the Scot. The more momentum Murray can get going into Roland Garros (and, subsequently, Wimbledon), the better.
Bottom Line: A solid return to form after a wayward February and March.
Ferrer continues to amaze this season. After a disappointing middle of 2010, where his ranking and results slipped, I figured it was the beginning of the end for the aging Spaniard. His style of play cuts back on injuries, no doubt, but also takes a big toll on the body. Not that you'd be able to tell from his play so far this year. Two titles, a breakthrough Grand Slam semifinal, wins over Nadal, Nalbandian and Almagro—and this week, a second Masters final.
Ferrer's an astounding dirtballer, but what's true of his game against top players on other surfaces is true of him on clay: he'll challenge 'em, but eight times out of ten, he won't emerge with a win—especially not on the bigger venues.
Having said that, an inspired Monte Carlo run bodes well for the rest of his clay campaign, and could certainly signal a deep run in Paris. He even had the cojones to say in his post-championship press conference that Nadal could be beaten on clay...if he's injured.
Bottom Line: Another fine performance from the veteran, who's putting together a quietly solid year. Could a Schiavone-esque victory be in the works at RG? You never know...
Nadal answered his challenge, but the Serb wasn't around to respond. Three words for Nole: Be very afraid.
The guy continues to be M.I.A. Any hopes of repeating as a finalist here were dashed in an early-round loss to Robredo. And he's out of this week's coming Barcelona tournament, where he was defending champ. Goodbye, Top 10—perhaps Top 20, come Paris.
Who is most likely to challenge Nadal in the upcoming clay season?
He's turned heads by breaking into the Top 10, but backing up quality wins—like his quarterfinal romp over Fed—is the next step forward.
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