When a teenaged Rafael Nadal lit up the tennis world with one fighting win after another – including a first French Open title on his maiden appearance as a 19-year-old in 2005 – there was a sense that the best of the exciting young Spaniard was still to come.
Twelve years on, that positive anticipation is stronger, and more significant, than ever.
Reinstalled at world No.5 after finals runs at the Australian Open, Acapulco and Miami, Nadal has more importantly reignited a career that only recently seemed dramatically compromised by form and physical challenges.
Talk of the wrist injury that forced Nadal to abandon the French Open, skip Wimbledon and end his season early in 2016 has been replaced with discussions on how long the Spaniard might compete at the highest level. While his 31st birthday looms in June, coach Carlos Moya sees his star charge playing on for three years, perhaps even longer.
For now, though, Nadal’s focus is happily on the present as the 2017 clay court season kicks into gear at the Monte Carlo Masters.
Clay, of course, is Rafa’s kingdom, with a string of records that enhance his status as the greatest clay courter of all time.
Nine Roland Garros trophies have been hoisted with many stunning milestones interwoven. Winning four consecutive titles between 2005 and 2008, Nadal later became the first man of the Open era to claim five consecutive titles when he did so between 2010 and 2014.
Rafa’s eighth win, achieved with victory over countryman David Ferrer in the 2013 final, made him the only male player to win the same Grand Slam so many times. Despite the five Grand Slam titles he’s collected elsewhere, Nadal can’t dispute the significance of the ones he’s secured on the famed terre battue of Court Philippe Chartier.
“The other things, sure, are important … we will see when we finish my career how many Grand Slams I have or if I win four, three, or five in a row,” he said on securing his ninth victory, over Novak Djokovic in the final, in 2014.
“But always for me is the same. The most important thing is to win Roland Garros. That’s the most important thing.”
Yet winning Roland Garros is not the only thing for Nadal, particularly on his beloved clay.
Monte Carlo has also reaped an unmatched nine titles – a record run that began with a finals victory over Guillermo Coria as an 18-year-old in 2005. In a 58-4 match-winning record in the Monaco capital, there have also been wins over Roger Federer, Andy Murray and Djokovic. A win over Gael Monfils in the 2016 final delivered Nadal’s first ATP Masters 1000 title in almost two years.
“It is a very, very emotional week for me, very important event. Probably Monte Carlo is one of the most important places in my career without any doubt,” said the champion, who’d also equalled Djokovic’s record of 28 wins at that level.
It was a record that would soon be improved upon: an eighth title in Barcelona the following week secured a 49th clay court title overall, equalling the number that the mighty Guillermo Vilas had achieved.
And if those numbers aren’t impressive enough, consider the 81-match winning streak that Nadal amassed on clay between 2005 and 2007 – starting with a win over Monfils in the first round of Monte Carlo and finally ending at the hands of Federer in the Hamburg final two years on.
Such statistics are a powerful measure but momentum is arguably even more important for the Spaniard. “I am at a very high level of tennis and I believe I am ready to win titles,” Nadal said after finishing runner-up to Federer in Miami. “I’m playing well [enough] to fight for everything.”
That’s particularly true as Nadal returns to the surface that feels most like home.
“I have good hopes that I going to be ready for Monte-Carlo,” he said. “Always when I am playing that well, on clay always helps a little bit more for me. I need to work hard to be ready for that. If I am ready for that, I think I am very excited about playing back on clay again.”
The fans, naturally, couldn’t be more delighted. As the long-time favourite kicks off Monte Carlo with the most positive state of mind and health, there’s also the awareness that on the last two occasions Nadal has competed in the Australian Open final, in 2012 and 2014, he went on to triumph at Roland-Garros four months later.
As always, there’s always a tantalising extra when it comes to the superstar Spaniard.
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