For most people, the final on Sunday in Monte Carlo would have been as dry and unappetizing as Zwieback toast because, let’s face it, Fernando Verdasco was not up to the task of stopping Rafael Nadal’s climb back onto the throne in his very own clay-court kingdom.
It was a smackdown of gigantic importance for someone in the top 10 of men’s professional tennis, which Verdasco will be again on Monday.
In fact, the Spaniard wore that same flummoxed expression that Roger Federer wore during his French Open final with Nadal back in 2008, when the mighty Swiss won only four games in three sets, 6-1, 6-3, 6-0.
The pain suffered in such a defeat is soul-wrenching. It renders you powerless, feeling less than human as some supernatural force deadens your ability to think and react.
Some have argued that it is easier to lose a lopsided contest than a close-fought, nip-and-tuck battle. But the sheer enormity of the defeat must rattle the confidence meter, sending it plummeting to ground zero.
How do you come back from such a loss after battling your way into a prestigious final?
The flamboyant Verdasco lost the first set at love—a bagel of epic proportions. The crowd sat in stilled wonder as the match unfolded and Nadal’s dominance became hypnotic—like watching a train wreck in slow motion.
Nadal’s serve licked the lines and he sliced the ball with so much spin you expected the crowd to burst into song—singing along as they followed the bouncing ball doing flip-flops in the air before landing in another far corner.
The fact is that it probably did not matter who was standing across the net during this final. No one was going to take this championship away from Nadal. He was on a mission to reestablish his clay credentials.
In all Verdasco was able to win one game—one game out of 13. Even winning a point became an all out challenge for the overwhelmed underdog, Verdasco, early on. His serve was broken five times.
The crowd cheered uproariously when Verdasco held on to win the opening game of set No. Two. Try as he might the number six seed was stopped dead in his tracks at all turns, winning only that one game in 86 minutes.
In fact in the whole tournament Nadal lost only 14 games—the least he has lost on his way to any championship in his illustrious career to date. Along the way he managed to defeat Juan Carlos Ferrero and David Ferrer, both of whom had won clay court tournaments this year.
It reunited the Majorcan magician Nadal with his vaunted red clay and the sound of applause, even gasps of wonder as his game coalesced in Monte Carlo, granting the defending champion his sixth victory in 32nd consecutive matches on the courts he loves.
Albert II, Sovereign Prince of Monaco, presented the trophy to Nadal after the first all-Spanish final in Monte Carlo since 2002.
Nadal became the first player in the Open era to win six consecutive championships at one event. One suspects he can now claim naming rights to the tournament in Monte Carlo if he so chooses.
All is as it should be in the tennis world once again with Nadal’s win banishing lingering doubts about his fitness and his resolve.
The King is back.
After not winning a tournament in almost a year, Nadal picked up his 16th Masters Shield, tying him with Roger Federer and placing him one behind the all-time leader Andre Agassi with 17 shields.
As Nadal heads off to another repeat in Barcelona where he is once again defending champion, he will be the number one seed. None of the other top eight will be playing in Barcelona with Robin Soderling featured as the number two seed.
It appears highly likely that Nadal will find his way into the final next weekend because after watching him today, it is hard to imagine him losing a match on clay. All of the other seeded players must have been truly grateful not to be standing in Verdasco’s shoes on Sunday.
As the tournament gets underway this week Nadal stands ready to face the usual suspects across the net. Day to day competition will be provided by Thomaz Belluci, Tommy Robredo, Ferrer, Albert Montanes, Jurgen Melzer, Verdasco or Fernando Gonzalez.
Time will tell exactly who will survive.
Soderling, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Tomas Berdych along with Ferrero and Lleyton Hewitt await on the other side of the draw. It will be interesting to see who will face the number one seed should he prevail in Barcelona into the final Sunday.
The first real test of the clay season will begin in Rome on April 25 where Nadal again is defending champion. There all the big guns will be waiting to blast him off his perch and reestablish themselves as players to be reckoned with during the clay court season.
Their voices will be pretty faint after their silence during the first three weeks of action on clay. So far no one has presented Nadal with much of a challenge. But he has only completed one tournament.
Still, all of Nadal’s fans must be heartily encouraged by his overwhelming victory.
With 3100 points to defend to maintain his current ranking, Nadal must keep winning in order to gain ground on the field.
The Majorcan has an opportunity to move up the rankings at Madrid where he lost in the finals to Federer in 2009 and an even greater opportunity at this year’s French Open. In 2009 Nadal lost in the fourth round.
Will this be Nadal’s “Year of the Come-Back?” Stay tuned...