Long live the King of Clay

Yesterday, Rafael Nadal won the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters for the seventh year in a row – an(other) all-time record for the Spaniard.  Beating countryman David Ferrer 6-4 7-5 in the final of the Masters 1000 tournament in Monaco not only won him the title; it also extended his unbeaten run at the tournament to 37 consecutive matches, and means he has not been defeated on any clay court since 2009.  Novak Djokovic may have had the lion’s share of trophies and plaudits so far this year, but Nadal proved once again that he is the king of the red jungle.

It was by no means Rafa’s best ever performance.  The final was strewn with errors from the rackets of both men and an overall air of malaise following a tough and tiring week.  Nadal had been pushed by a resurgent Andy Murray in their Saturday semi-final, dropping a set to the Scot.  Ferrer had, on paper, had the better run to the final, having not lost a set or more than six games per match on his way.  The difference came, as always, on the crucial points.  When it came to the crunch, Nadal was able to take the big breaks and capitalise on a poor penultimate game from Ferrer to serve out the match.

It was enough to strengthen the Mallorcan’s position as favourite for the French Open once again, and further justify his place in sport’s history books.  And he’s not even turned 25 yet.

After the match, Nadal was characteristically modest.  “I’m a lucky guy to have done this by age 24,” he said.  “I don’t think about defending points from previous years, only about playing well.  I just keep trying to improve every day, train humbly and improve.”

Humility is the trait that has made Nadal undoubtedly the most popular player on tour.  Certainly British fans have taken to the Spaniard like few others in recent years.  It is perhaps not surprising that the cheers in the O2 Arena were slightly louder for Rafa than for the habitually moody and monotone Murrayduring their ATP World Tour Finals match.  And while the turf of Wimbledon still very much belongs to Roger Federer, his flat form and flashes of off-the-cuff arrogance haven’t won him any favour lately.

Nadal is much tamer away from tennis than his regimented, roaring form on court.  He still resides in Manacor, the small town on the Balearic island of Mallorca where he was born.  He has been in a relationship since his teens with Maria Francisca Perella, who avoids media attention, and his close-knit coaching team is headed by his Uncle Toni, the brother of his father and former FC Barcelona player Miguel Angel Nadal. 

By remaining so close to his roots, Rafa is able to produce his best form on the clay courts he was raised on.  Like all players, it no doubt helps that this part of the season takes place largely in or near his home country, and it would be hugely surprising if he doesn’t go on to dominate every tournament over the next two months.  Admittedly, Djokovic had to miss out on Monte Carlo due to injury, and he might have caused more problems for Nadal.  But after extending his fearsome clay court record, it looks like the world #1 is on course to take back his throne.

Martin McGale


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