Monte Carlo Masters: Seventh heaven for Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal seals his seventh consecutive Monte Carlo Masters title with 6-4 7-5 win over David Ferrer
It was an all-Spanish final for the second year in a row at 2011’s first clay court Masters, but that fact paled into insignificance alongside the records embodied by one of the finalists.
Rafael Nadal was playing in his 40th match in his seventh consecutive Monte Carlo final, and he had lost only one of those matches before -in the third round of first appearance in 2003, aged just 16.
Since then, Nadal had faced an illustrious string of opponents in an unbroken sequence of title matches -Guillermo Coria, Roger Federer (three times), Novak Djokovic and, last year, Fernando Verdasco -and had beaten them all.
In what was Nadal’s 27th Masters final -playing for his 19th title -he once again faced a Spanish No2, an honour held on this occasion by David Ferrer.
The No4 seed Ferrer was appearing in only his second Masters final, and in the first, last year in Rome, he was beaten by this same opponent. Only a superhuman effort from the 29-year-old would have any impact on the towering master of clay that is Nadal.
But if there was one player who could deliver such a superhuman effort, it was Ferrer, one of the fittest, most tenacious, committed and hard-working players on the tour.
He also happened to be enjoying some of the best form of his career, and recently climbed to a 30-month high of No6 in the rankings.
With titles in Auckland and Acapulco, Ferrer came to the Monte Carlo final on a 9-0 match-winning streak on clay and had lost just 17 games and no sets on his way through the draw.
So could he find his very best? And, more to the point, would Nadal be affected by the three hours he battled against Andy Murray the day before?
Ferrer opened nervously, rather as he had against Melzer in his semi, but he managed to hold from deuce with two good volleys. Then he quickly brought his flat angled backhand into play to win two break chances on Nadal’s opening serve.
Nadal, too, managed to hold and Ferrer, pushing a bit too hard on his own serve, was the first to be broken.
Game after game went to deuce, just as the Murray-Nadal semi had done. In the sixth game, Nadal went 0-40 down but fought for 10 minutes to eventually hold his advantage: 4-2.
There was little between the two men: both served erratically but both found moments of brilliance in their use of drop shots and occasional forays to the net. It was engrossing stuff.
Ferrer, again pushed to deuce, kept himself in rallies with Nadal-like cross-court ground strokes to hold serve. Nadal in turn needed 10-minutes to hold at 5-3: eight games, and over an hour played.
Then the tension burst over into an edgy exchange as Ferrer stepped up to serve to stay in the set. Nadal went to change his racket and was reprimanded -not for the first time -by the umpire. He nevertheless towelled himself down, scuffed the dust from the lines and looked up to see Ferrer already hitting his serve.
Nadal looked decidedly non-plussed -the two friends had, after all, shared pizza and sushi while watching Real Madrid and Barcelona the night before -but this was a timely reminder that all is fair in love and war.
The Ferrer hold only delayed the set’s conclusion, though. Nadal, finding a little extra venom on his serve after a warning for time violation from the umpire, served out 6-4.
The stats reminded Ferrer -if he needed any reminding -that his serve percentage, at just 35, was simply not up to the level needed to take advantage of a below-par Nadal. Had it been higher, Ferrer stood a real chance of pushing Nadal to a tie-break: He had equalled Nadal in winners and played significantly fewer unforced errors.
To the second set, and Nadal again pressured the Ferrer opening serve, running to a 40-0 advantage, but Ferrer held with some wonderful drop volleys and cross court drives.
However, on Ferrer’s second serve, Nadal stepped inside the base line to take a more aggressive stance than he had adopted in the first set, and injected some extra pace. Ferrer was forced into a couple of long forehands to concede the break.
Suddenly the energy on Nadal’s side seemed more potent, and he held serve to love: 3-1. But Ferrer responded with a love game of his own and he too found a bit of inspiration.
He stepped into the Nadal serve, attacked the net and seized his single break point chance. It was all square, 4-4. Ferrer continued to attack and was rewarded with a 5-4 lead after exactly two hours.
In a match of many contrasting chapters, the 11th game marked another change. Ferrer seemed suddenly overcome with nerves and, at deuce, hit a couple of shockers, one of them a forehand a metre wide, to hand the momentum to Nadal once more. The champion’s experience and superior serving ensured little further drama, and he served out to a 7-5 win.
Ferrer, a gracious loser, smiled his congratulations to his friend, and should be buoyed up by a performance that, with better serving and fewer unforced errors, may have run Nadal even closer.
The winner looked relieved. With two runners-up trophies from his last two tournaments, this was the perfect response.
It may not have produced Nadal’s cleanest tennis, but it provided a confidence-boosting first step on what is likely to be the illustrious red-dirt road to Roland Garros.