When Rafael Nadal capped his 2017 clay season with not one La Decima but three—in Monte-Carlo, Barcelona and Roland Garros—it was the culmination of a remarkable return to form and fitness after a 2016 peppered with injuries that included a tear-stained third-round withdrawal at the French Open.
He went on to win a 16th Major at the US Open and rise back to No1 for the fourth time—and then for a fifth time in March this year. But could he do it all again in 2018? After all, he closed down 2017 early with another injury, and went on to retire, withdraw or concede a walkover at eight consecutive tournaments from Basel in October until Miami this March.
But come the clay, come the clay Master. He prepared for the defence of four clay titles with two impressive and characteristically passionate matches for Spain in Davis Cup. It was not as though he played lowly competition—first No34 Philipp Kohlschreiber, then No4 Alexander Zverev—but even so he dropped only 16 games in his straight-sets victories.
Then it was Monte-Carlo, and his campaign for La Undecima. To give that a little context, no other player has won a single tournament 10 times, let alone three different tournaments 10 times. Roger Federer’s nine on Halle’s grass, and eight at Wimbledon and Basel are the only ones that come close.
Nadal’s draw was not easy, but he arrived with his confidence bolstered by this Davis Cup results and also more rested, more fresh, more prepared for his assault on clay than he had ever been before. Indeed, never before had he begun the clay swing without having played a match since January.
That should have spelled trouble for the rest, and sure enough, it did. The mighty Spaniard bristled with energy and intent from the word go as he left the likes of Dominic Thiem, Grigor Dimitrov, and Kei Nishikori for dead. He did not drop more than five games to any opponent, and for the fifth time, he won the trophy without dropping a set.
In 12 appearances, then, he has lost only four matches and won 68 in Monte-Carlo, and by the time he turns 32 in early June, he looks almost guaranteed to have his Undecima in Barcelona and Paris, too.
If he is to stay at No1 for the duration, he needs them, plus the title in Madrid. Because he only leads Federer by 100 points, any loss will concede the top spot back to his rival, for even though the Swiss is not playing at all in the clay season, he also has no points to defend.
For the moment, however, he is the top dog, and has also passed Novak Djokovic’s record 30 Masters titles. And there are plenty more statistics to underline the Spaniard’s clay status.
· Monte-Carlo marks Nadal’s 396th win on clay—so look out Barcelona, that 400 mile-stone is on the horizon.
· Nadal’s winning percentage on the red dirt, at 91.8%, outdoes previous clay superstars such as Bjorn Borg (86.0%) and Guillermo Vilas (80.3%).
· But it also outdoes his current rivals on other surfaces. Federer leads the way in percentage terms on grass at 87.2; Djokovic leads on hard courts at 84.2; Federer tops the list playing indoors at 81.0.
· His Sunday victory took Nadal to 11-1 for the season so far and into his 171st week at No1—moving ahead of John McEnroe’s tally of 170 weeks.
· Nadal is close to overtaking another McEnroe milestone, too, his 77 singles titles. Nadal has 76, so by the time he heads to Roland Garros, he seems sure to have passed the American.
· And finally, there is the little matter of the style of his clay victories. Nadal is now on a career-best 36 consecutive sets on the red stuff dating back to the start of his Roland Garros run last year.
Yet alongside all these extraordinary achievements, perhaps the most impressive is the spirit in which he continues to play, whether clay or not.
Tennis fans around the world are only too aware of the physical challenges Nadal has faced over the years, of the many tournaments missed because of painful knees—including Wimbledon and the World Tour Finals—and more recently with wrist injury. There was appendicitis in the last months of 2014 and hip problems through the first months of this season, yet the desire to compete, and to improve, seems never to fade.
That passion shone from his comments following Monte-Carlo, even in the midst of talking of his advancing years.
“My true feeling is, these kinds of things are not going to happen forever, so I just try to enjoy them and to play with the full passion and with the full energy and concentration, full love for the sport [while] I can.
“I know the day to say goodbye is closer than 10 years ago. It is something that I am not worried about, but it is a real thing. So, I am just enjoying every day and trying to play with the best attitude possible, to keep being happy playing tennis. That’s all.”
He went on:
“Eleven titles here, it’s unbelievable… I always say the same: If I did it, somebody else can do it, but it is very difficult. I really don’t know how these things can happen because it is lot of years without making mistakes and without being unlucky in this week. I have been unlucky other weeks, but not this week.”
Luck, of course, is not at the root of his success. If that was the case, his draw in Monte-Carlo, and again this week in Barcelona, would have been a little easier.
As it is, just as last week, Nadal has drawn formidable opposition early on, including the man he beat in the Monte-Carlo final, Nishikori, in his second match: The Japanese man won the title in 2014 and 2015. Again, too, Djokovic—making a rare Barcelona return as a wild card—falls straight into Nadal’s quarter for the second straight week.
Several of the big men who bypassed Monaco are also bypassing Barcelona—John Isner, Juan Martin del Potro, Kevin Anderson—along with Marin Cilic and Zverev. But potential match-ups in the semis include David Goffin, Karen Khachanov and Hyeon Chung.
This time around, too, the draw looks more likely to pull off a Nadal/Djokovic showdown for a 51st time, and if anyone can halt the Spaniard on clay, it is the Serb. Nadal may have won their last meeting a year ago in Madrid but Djokovic won their previous seven matches, and in three of Nadal’s clay strongholds: Monte-Carlo in 2015, swiftly followed by Roland Garros, and then Rome in 2016.
Much, of course, may depend on the fitness of the Serb who is still working his way back to his best after elbow problems began to take their toll during the clay swing last year.
Djokovic is certainly not one to be intimidated by reputation, but even he may feel the pressure of playing Nadal on Pista Rafael Nadal, in the closest that the Spaniard has to a home-town tournament. And if that does not give pause for thought, Nadal’s 53-3 record in Barcelona may do. Among his 10 titles there, the Spaniard has won eight without dropping a set, including the last two years.
Even so, Nadal’s work ethic and focus remained unswerving as he left Monte-Carlo:
“Next week is another week that I have a tough draw in Barcelona… tomorrow I need to start being focused on the next week. Is not the moment to stop and to disconnect your mind. Is the moment to stay focused and to keep holding that momentum after winning seven matches in a row on clay… That’s a positive thing. The way that I won the matches [is] very positive. So is the moment to keep going, and that’s my goal.”
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