Rafael Nadal beats Andy Murray for 100th final: targets No9 in Monte Carlo

Rafael Nadal beats Andy Murray to set up a final clash against Gael Monfils at the Monte Carlo Masters

rafael nadal
Rafael Nadal will face Gael Monfils in Sunday's final Photo: Marianne Bevis

For Andy Murray, twice a semi-finalist at the first clay Masters of the year in Monte-Carlo, this was proving to be a better return to form than he might have anticipated.

Since reaching the finals of the Australian Open at the start of the year, he had become a father, returned indoors to open the defence of Great Britain’s Davis Cup, but had struggled to find his usual form on the hard courts of North America in the opening two Masters of the year. He won just a single match at each of the Indian Wells and Miami events, a particular surprise at the latter for he has twice been champion in Florida.

Murray has always found the transition to clay a tricky one, too. The sliding, twisting movement used to play havoc with his back, and after pulling out of Rome and Roland Garros in 2013, he resorted to back surgery later that year. Come 2015, and he won not just his first clay title in Munich but also the Madrid Masters, beating Rafael Nadal in straights sets in the final.

Now, he was into his third Monte-Carlo semi, and after a slow start in the tournament—two three setters—Murray had surged through No10 seed Milos Raonic. But now things got really challenging. He faced the man who beat him in both those previous semis here, Rafael Nadal.

For although Murray had beaten the most decorated clay champion of this era in Madrid, he trailed Nadal 16-6 in previous matches and 6-1 on clay. What’s more, Nadal was aiming to reach a remarkable 100th career final, his 42nd at Masters level, and this would be his 11th semi-final from 12 appearances in Monte-Carlo.

Indeed while Nadal arrived here without a title since Hamburg last summer, and with some unexpected losses and fluctuations in form during the South American clay swing, he was an eight-time champion with a 56-4 record at this tournament.

In the early goings, though, it was that rising form of Murray that held sway: He began with aggressive tennis, almost broke in the second game, held to love with an ace, and then broke in the sixth game. He came under pressure in the next game, but survived two break points, and a scorching cross-court backhand held for 5-2.

Nadal was certainly far from his best, thus far finding just four winners for 13 errors, and he seemed unable to get a read on repeated drop-shot plays from Murray. It was another such drop winner that brought up break point, and Nadal netted a forehand for a break and the set, 6-2.

But just as Nadal’s consistency has left something to be desired in recent months, so has Murray’s, and now the Briton went off the boil to offer up an immediate break. Nadal, too, remained unpredictable, double faulted, netted a backhand, and shanked a forehand for a third break point. One more error, and Murray was back on level terms.

It stayed that way until the seventh game, as Murray’s concentration let him down and distractions seemed to come from all directions.

His mood was not helped by a break to go 3-4 down, and he was clearly unhappy with his serving, which dropped to a miserable 39 percent. He hung on through a nine-minute ninth game to trail 4-5, but it took Nadal just three minutes to hold for the set, 6-4.

With almost two hours on the clock, there remained more questions than answers. Which of the two would find their level and their focus in the decider? This was soon answered: Nadal.

The Spaniard of old, energised and pounding his ground-strokes to the lines, began to run rings around Murray with his angled forehands, sliced backhands and not a few drop-shots. Twice he made drop winners in the first game to break, and continued to manipulate the rhythm and tactics of the match.

Easy holds, a break to love, and Nadal was 4-1 up with 13 of the 16 points played thus far in the set. Murray continued to be distracted, now by a bee on the court, now a trainer called and dismissed by Nadal, now queries over the time taken between points.

Murray did manage to break the flow with a hold, and even looked as though he might turn the tide as Nadal let no fewer than four match-points slip away—with a time violation thrown in for good measure.

Nine minutes it took the Spaniard to seal that last game, but win it he did, 6-1, after two and three-quarter hours.

For Nadal, the Monte-Carlo clay must feel like a soothing balm, and all the more so because his tormenter in two of his last three visits here, No1 seed Novak Djokovic, is nowhere to be seen as Nadal heads to the final.

There the Spaniard will instead meet Gael Monfils, who beat compatriot Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, 6-1, 6-3, in just 69 minutes.

The former semi-finalist and No13 seed has yet to drop a set here, but while the athletic Monfils has been in great form this season, he has only ever beaten Nadal twice in 13 meetings, both on Doha’s hard courts.

This then really does start to feel like the return of Nadal to the top table—and just a fortnight after Djokovic denied him the lead in Masters titles for the first time. The man himself, though, was very quick to dismiss such notions.

“I don’t want to talk every day about if I am back or I am not back. I am what I am today. I’m in the final of Monte-Carlo. That’s great news. That’s very important for me. Rafael Nadal of 2016 will not be the same as 2009 or 2008. Every year is different, every feeling is different. I want to be today better than yesterday and tomorrow better than today… I don’t want to think about the past.”

And that is entirely admirable.

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