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Why Rafael Nadal Needs to Win Big Matches at 2015 Monte Carlo Masters

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistApril 16, 2015

Rafael Nadal of Spain plays a return to Lucas Pouille of France during their match of the Monte Carlo Tennis Masters tournament in Monaco, Wednesday, April 15, 2015. (AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau)
Lionel Cironneau/Associated Press

The Monte Carlo Masters is Rafael Nadal’s wake-up call. The Spanish superstar who has spent the past decade obliterating the ATP tour during the clay-court season must prove that he can win big matches and important titles in 2015.

Nadal, the all-time king of clay, has always reserved his best performances for Europe’s crushed-brick surfaces. The conditions are slower, producing higher ball bounces and extra time for his defensive retrievals and offensive control. He’s the kinesthetic master at sliding into his shots, running around his backhand and bludgeoning his opponents with whirling forehand topspin and powerful putaways.

Players who challenged Nadal understood that they would have to go to war for several grinding hours. The Spanish champion would always have a special reserve of championship acumen. He won big matches with his heart and confidence as much as with his unparalleled skills.

But it’s closing in on one year since Nadal won a big match. If he can’t raise his game at Monte Carlo, could his European empire crumble into the Mediterranean Sea?

Lionel Cironneau/Associated Press

 

Cold Reality

How easy is it for a legend to hold on to his past successes? Can he still bank on winning big matches only in clay-court Europe? It’s been over 10 months since he defeated Novak Djokovic for the French Open, the last time he defeated anyone in the Top 10 of the ATP rankings.

Since that 14th major title, Nadal has played 33 matches, compiling a 23-10 record, pedestrian by his standards. Furthermore, he has dropped both of the top-10 matches he has played, losing to Tomas Berdych at the Australian Open and Milos Raonic at Indian Wells after having defeated both of them a combined 22 consecutive times.

There are explanations, of course. Nadal endured another injury-plagued 2014, marring his performance in the Australian Open final, undermining his confidence through the early Masters 1000 schedule and stealing much of his former invincibility at his European strongholds. His French Open title was his last big triumph, and then he staggered through what few matches he could play to close out a disappointing second half.

Unlike 2013, Nadal has not stormed back into 2015 with dominating tennis. He has shown flashes of his old self against weaker competition, but he has not had a truly important win against a top contender.

 

Clay-Court Revival

During his 2014 struggles on the clay-court circuit, Nadal insisted that it was getting harder, telling a reporter, according to Si.com, that his struggles would become more common. “Get used to [it],” Nadal said. "Because with the years it is the normal thing and in the end everybody suffers. It's part of the sport. It's part of the careers of everybody.”

The new paradigm shift from dominance to struggle is not exactly the way to beat back emboldened opponents. These days, youthful challengers and seasoned veterans alike feel as if they have a fighting chance if not at least a superior advantage or two against the great Nadal.

Raonic blasted his way with aces and steady nerves at Indian Wells. Berdych stepped in and hit bolder strokes through Rod Laver Arena in Australia. John Isner can serve hard enough to force Nadal to play tiebreaker bingo. Even scrappy David Ferrer can say he beat Nadal at Monte Carlo; he did it in 2014.

No more waiting for Nadal to get in shape or find his form.

If he wishes to return to the winner’s circle at the biggest European tournaments in the world—Monte Carlo, Madrid, Rome and Roland Garros—he must soon win big matches and rebuild his former aura of invincibility.

Lionel Cironneau/Associated Press

 

Streaky Legend

Despite his astounding records, including 14 majors, 27 Masters titles and clay-court records that will never be broken, Nadal’s career has aged with greater periods of streaky play.

Is he on or off? Is he in form or is he trying to find it?

His body is built to master the nuances of clay, and his mind is conditioned through routine and belief. Although quiet and classy to his opponents, his intensity and drive is fueled through a comeback mentality both in how he constructs his points and how he urges himself to win.

At his best, Nadal is a killer, pounding his opponents into submission, punctuated by timely, bending winners up the line or astonishing reversals from defense to offense. He thrives on turning the tables, pumping his fist and urging himself to reach his elevated world of immortal tennis.

He wants to put doubt in his adversaries, to get them muttering, “Uh oh, Rafa’s rolling. Too tough and I’ve got nothing left. No chance.” That’s exactly what Nadal did to David Ferrer at Roland Garros’s 2014 quarterfinal. As reported by Julien Pretot of Reuters, Ferrer said:

I don't usually do this, but I thought, I'm not going to be able to come back into the match. I thought, No, no, not against Rafa. He's such good a player.

It remains to be seen how much more pantheon-level tennis Nadal will play, but the first thing to watch for are crushing wins over opponents he should wipe away. Then, he must defeat top-10 opponents when the quarterfinals and semifinals determine who is worthy to play for a title.

One big win begets another, and Nadal can use this to produce another great series of tournaments and a few trophies.

We are going to find out very soon how big Nadal can play when the big matches arrive, and if he is ready to prove once again that he is still the king of clay and master of them all.

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