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Rafael Nadal can be seen celebrating during a match at each of his 9 Roland Garros French Open tennis victories. By winning the 2014 French Open, Nadal became the only male player to win a single Grand Slam tournament nine times. From left to right Rafael Nadal celebrates winning a match during the 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014. (Photo by Getty Images)

Steve Flink: Nadal Triumphant Again on the Clay of Monte Carlo

After securing the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters title in Monaco for the tenth time in an astonishing thirteen year span, after capturing his 70th ATP World Tour singles championship, after taking a 29th Masters 1000 tournament victory, after moving past Guillermo Vilas into sole possession of first place among the men during the Open Era with his 50th career title on the dirt, Rafael Nadal not only hit more milestones but also must be fueled by the notion that there is so much more he could accomplish in the weeks and months ahead. Remember this: Nadal had not won a tournament of any kind since he ruled in Barcelona a year ago. He had lost in the finals of three tournaments across the early stages of 2017. But now the Spaniard looks more sprightly than he has in a very long time.

Nadal took apart countryman Albert Ramos-Vinolas 6-1, 6-3 on Sunday to claim the title that has come to be seen by many seasoned observers as something resembling an annual right and inevitable personal passage for one of the sport's iconic performers. The title round contest played out predictably from beginning to end; there was never any doubt that Nadal would prevail in this battle of left-handers.

Although it was a cloudy day and not one of those scorching afternoons that Nadal always prefers, he still set the tempo from beginning to end and refused to allow the No. 15 seed to become the aggressor from the backcourt. When the two competitors went forehand to forehand, Nadal had the upper hand throughout the encounter. Moreover, Nadal's serve was extraordinarily accurate. He never faced a break point, put 76% of his first serves in, secured 81% of those first serve points, and took 70% of the points on his second delivery.

Meanwhile, Nadal seemed capable of breaking Ramos-Vinolas almost anytime he wanted to do so. He kept his returns remarkably deep in both sets and got himself in at least neutral rally positions by virtue of those high quality shots. Nadal was briefly troubled in the opening game of the first set, trailing 15-30 after Ramos-Vinolas connected with one of his few forehand winners. Nadal was in discomfort as some clay became lodged in his eye but the trainer dealt with that swiftly, and the heavy favorite swept three consecutive points to move ahead 1-0.

The No. 4 seed should have broken in the second game, wasting a 0-40 opening with three straight missed shots off the forehand. Ramos-Vinolas managed to hold on for 1-1, but the reprieve was brief. Nadal held at love for 2-1, closing that game with an ace down the T and a forehand down the line winner set up by a cagey wide serve in the ad court. Now Nadal went to work with sharper intensity, breaking at 15 for 3-1 with a forehand winner created by a trademark inside out forehand. Down 15-30 in the fifth game, Nadal did not blink, forcing an error from his adversary with a deep crosscourt backhand, sending an unstoppable first serve down the T to induce another error, and making a nifty forehand volley winner. On to 4-1 went the purposeful Nadal.

Not content with that lead, Nadal broke at 15 for 5-1 and then held from 0-30 on a run of four points in a row to seal the set 6-1. At 30-30 in that seventh game, Nadal plainly discouraged his rival. Ramos-Vinolas's forehand approach landed deep near the corner, seemingly leaving Nadal in a serious bind. But Nadal sent a topspin forehand lob down the line that was unanswerable by a retreating Ramos-Vinolas. Nadal then aced his opponent out wide in the ad court. He had closed the set in style, with a flourish, on his own terms, majestically. He collected five games in a row from 1-1, winning 20 of 26 points in that span.

Ramos-Vinolas commenced the second set with clear resolve, holding at 30 with a telling wide serve that Nadal could not counter. Nadal held at love for 1-1, but the underdog advanced to 2-1. Nadal, however, was unshakable, holding for 2-2 at love on an ace down the T, breaking for 3-2 after starting that game with a backhand volley winner. Serving at 40-0 in the sixth game, Nadal swung his first serve wide to the forehand, opening up the court for a forehand down the line winner, making it to 4-2.

Ramos-Vinolas held on for 3-4 and found himself with a 0-30 opening on Nadal's serve in the eighth game after the clay court maestro double faulted and then netted a backhand down the line that he had no business missing. Yet Nadal met that challenge with unmistakable clarity of mind. He controlled the next rally and forced Ramos-Vinolas into an off balance sliced backhand error: 15-30. Stepping in boldly to take a short ball off the backhand early, he directed a two-hander down the line for a winner: 30-30. An immaculate first serve down the T led to a clean forehand winner: 40-30. Next? An ace out wide. Nadal had averted a potentially dangerous situation, advancing to 5-3.

Serving to stay in the match, Ramos-Vinolas was ahead 40-15 but an unrelenting Nadal was determined to end it there and not have to serve out the match. He marched to a first match point but missed a backhand down the line long. Ramos-Vinolas saved a second match point. But on his third opportunity, Nadal took the title when a beleaguered Ramos-Vilonas double faulted. He was simply outclassed and overwhelmed from the opening bell right to the end of the skirmish by the redoubtable Nadal.

The week concluded on a very positive note for the most accomplished men's clay court player ever. He dropped only one set in five matches. That was in his first assignment, a second round meeting against Great Britain's Kyle Edmund. Nadal had crushed Edmund without losing a game in the first set but he lost a measure of aggression, allowing Edmund to start dictating off his explosive forehand. Edmund took the second set and even broke back for 3-3 in the third before the Spaniard closed out that account on an impressive run of three straight games, gaining a hard fought 6-0, 5-7, 6-3 triumph.

The set the stage for Nadal to face No. 14 seed Alexander Zverev, an exceedingly confident young man who was celebrating his 20th birthday. The first time Zverev had collided with Nadal, he had a match point at Indian Wells last year, only to bungle a forehand volley. Nadal rescued himself to win 6-7 (8), 6-0, 7-5. In their second and most recent showdown, the German led two sets to one but bowed in five tumultuous sets at the Australian Open in January, cramping in the latter stages of that contest.

Given that background, many learned observers believed that even on clay Zverev might push the Spaniard to the hilt. But he was abysmally off form, impatient and reckless off the ground, confused about how to proceed against his celebrated opponent. Nadal rolled to a stunningly easy 6-1, 6-1 victory. At the start of the week, he seemed likely to have a hard fought quarterfinal against Grigor Dimitrov, the same man who was so close to toppling Nadal in the penultimate round of the 2017 Australian Open. Nadal was serving at 3-4, 15-40 in the fifth set before emerging with an exhilarating victory in that match at Melbourne.

But the enigmatic Dimitrov lost early in Monte Carlo. Nadal confronted Diego Schwartzman in the last eight instead. The beguiling Argentinian made the Spaniard work hard in a 6-4, 6-4 quarterfinal duel that featured dramatic momentum shifts and some stupendous shotmaking from Schwartzman in the cool night air. The 24-year-old was firing away freely off both flanks and punishing almost every short ball he got from Nadal. The Spaniard lost his serve in the opening game of the match but recouped to win four games in a row. Schwartzman captured three games in a row to reach 4-4, and had a crucial break point in the ninth game. Nadal audaciously served-and-volleyed, going wide to the backhand with his delivery, paving the way for a first volley into the open court for a winner. He obstinately held on for 5-4 and broke in the next game for the set.

The second set was no less complicated. Nadal led 2-0 but lost the next four games. Determined to avoid a third set, he rallied forcefully to win four consecutive games with his best and most aggressive tennis of the match, collecting 14 points in a row at the end. That carried him into a semifinal against the ever improving David Goffin of Belgium. Goffin had upended Dominic Thiem from a break down in the final set, earning a quarterfinal duel against none other than Novak Djokovic, the 2013 and 2015 Monte Carlo victor.

Djokovic sorely wanted to turn his season around in Monte Carlo. He had won in Doha to open his 2017 campaign, overcoming Andy Murray in an entertaining and well played final. But then the Serbian was shocked in the second round of the Australian Open by Denis Istomin in five sets. He was ousted at both Acapulco and Indian Wells by Nick Kyrgios, who served with breathtaking power, accuracy and deception in both matches. Djokovic never broke him in either match. He pulled out of Miami with an injury, hoping to begin anew at Monte Carlo and both repair his game and recover his confidence.

That never quite happened. Despite a set and a break lead of 6-3, 2-1 against the perpetually maddening Gilles Simon—who can so often turn essentially from a man into a ball machine—Djokovic did not maintain his mastery of the Frenchman, who served for the match at 5-4 in the final set before the Serbian willed his way to a 6-3, 3-6, 7-5 victory. Taking on the industrious Pablo Carreno Busta—the 25-year-old Spaniard ranked 20th in the world—in the round of 16, Djokovic revealed once more that his lingering insecurities are considerable.

The world No. 2 was up 6-2, 2-0 but he let the second set slip away against a polished clay court player. In the third set, Djokovic rhythmically reestablished himself from the baseline, surging to 4-2, 40-15, playing his irresistible brand of tennis. Inexplicably, he fell into disarray, allowing Carreno Busta back to 4-4. In the ninth game, Djokovic wandered into a 15-40 corner and was fortunate to save that break point, getting away with a weak overhead. Djokovic garnered an unconvincing 6-2, 4-6, 6-4 win, knowing he would need to play with a whole lot more consistency and conviction against Goffin if he wanted to stay in the tournament.

Goffin cast aside a seemingly distracted and almost listless Djokovic 6-2 in the first set, but from the start of the second until the middle of the third set, the Serbian came alive, striking the ball with much better and more sustained pace, depth and precision. He captured the second set and bolted to 2-0 in the third. Goffin had been thoroughly outplayed by Djokovic for quite a while; falling behind by two breaks in the final set would have put victory virtually out of reach for the Belgian.

But Goffin was unwilling to surrender when he drifted to 15-40 in the third game. An excellent serve down the T helped him save one break point, and some phenomenal defense enabled him to escape at 30-40. Djokovic had pulled him off the court with a brilliant two-hander crosscourt. Somehow Goffin guided a semi-lob down the line that landed deep in the corner, and not far inside the sideline. He eventually won that point and held serve.

Although Djokovic still increased his lead to 4-2, Goffin stayed right with the 12-time Grand Slam tournament singles champion, standing toe to toe in the rallies, striking his forehand aggressively, drilling his two-hander impeccably. He won five of the last six games to prevail 6-2, 3-6, 7-5. Both men played magnificently down the stretch but Djokovic remained vulnerable at critical moments. Goffin achieved the biggest win of his career in many ways.

Buoyed by that victory, the Belgian was terrific at the outset of his clash with Nadal in the semifinals. He was serving at 3-2, 40-0 in the first set, taking charge in most of the baseline exchanges, leaving Nadal somewhat confounded about how to combat his rival. Suddenly Goffin hit a bad patch in that game, making a string of errors to allow Nadal back to deuce. He had three more game points after squandering the 40-0 lead but did not convert. He then had a fourth such opportunity, and his seventh game point for 4-2. Nadal's forehand was clearly long, and the linesman called it that way.

Somehow, though, the experienced and highly respected umpire Cedric Mourier of France felt he had to check the mark. He came down from the chair and pointed to the baseline, claiming Nadal's shot clipped the line. Goffin was dumbfounded. He pointed to another mark. He was convinced the ball had been long, and the television Hawk-Eye replay confirmed that the Belgian was correct. But Mourier's overrule meant the point had to be replayed. The crowd booed the decision unabashedly. That game went to deuce no fewer than nine times. Altogether, Goffin had ten game points to reach 4-2 but never got there. Nadal eventually broke through for 3-3. He found his range, hit the ball harder and deeper, hardly missed a ball, served strategically, and swept ten of eleven games after the controversy to win going away 6-3, 6-1.

Goffin was clearly dispirited by the Mourier ruling, fundamentally collapsing thereafter. That was saddening not just for him but most observers. But let me offer a few observations. Goffin has to demand more of himself as a competitor. If roles had been reversed, Nadal would have been just as perplexed and infuriated as Goffin was by the ruling, but the Spaniard would have used the imbroglio to fight even harder for victory. Goffin folded and that was his own fault.

The fact remains that Nadal was elevating his game and finding some holes in the Goffin forehand before the umpire interceded. I believe he would have succeeded under any circumstances, and he might have even won the first set. It just would have been a longer and tougher battle to halt Goffin. A final point: we need Hawk-Eye on clay. I have always thought it should be used on every surface. This was not the first time a player has pointed to one mark while the umpire examines another. If Goffin could have challenged that overrule of Mourier's, he would have been awarded the point and established a 4-2 lead. An unfortunate situation would have been avoided.

Be that as it may, Goffin's run to the semifinals was admirable and his loss to Nadal should not obscure the fact that he defeated Djokovic in the match of the tournament. The contest I would place only narrowly behind Djokovic-Goffin was the clash between Ramos-Vinolas and Andy Murray. They met in the round of 16. A lot of authorities thought Murray would skip Monte Carlo to give an elbow injury longer to heal. But he felt he was ready. The British competitor took the first set from the Spaniard easily, lost the second, and then built a 4-0 final set lead. The world No. 1 is almost unstoppable when he is up two breaks in the final set of any match, regardless of the surface, no matter who is standing on the other side of the net.

But this one somehow got away from Murray, and here is how it happened. With Murray serving at 4-0, 30-40 in the final set, he employed a backhand drop shot to draw Ramos-Vilonas up to the net. Then Murray lobbed but the Spaniard put away an overhead. Nevertheless, Ramos-Vilonas served shortly thereafter at 4-1, 15-40 but cracked a searing forehand inside in that Murray could not handle. Murray followed with a netted backhand return off a body serve. The Spaniard held on for 2-4 and then broke Murray in the seventh game on an unforced error off the forehand from the top seed.

The battle had been reshaped, much to the detriment of an understandably disconcerted Murray. Ramos-Vilonas held on for 4-4 before Murray bravely rallied from 0-40 to regain the lead at 5-4. In the tenth game, the Spaniard was up 40-0 but Murray claimed three points in a row to come within two points of winning. But the Spaniard fully displayed his mettle at this critical juncture. On the 15th stroke of a tense rally, he unleashed an inside out forehand winner. He got the hold for 5-5, broke Murray in the eleventh game and closed out the match 2-6, 6-2, 7-5. Toward the end, Murray was cramping.

Having upended Murray, Ramos-Vilonas clipped No. 5 seed Marin Cilic 6-2, 6-7 (5), 6-2 in the quarters, sweeping six games in succession from 0-2 in the final set. In the semifinals, the lefty accounted for Lucas Pouille 6-3, 5-7, 6-1. Pouille had knocked out Pablo Cuevas in the quarters after Cuevas had cut down No. 3 seed Stan Wawrinka in straight sets. To be sure, the clay court practitioners made their presence known in Monte Carlo across the board.

In the end, though, it was the greatest clay courter of them all who held the trophy. Nadal had some good fortune. He did not have to face Djokovic or Murray. Zverev collapsed in their encounter and Goffin fell apart in a match that could have been taxing. But, in the final analysis, none of that really matters to Nadal. He heads this week to Barcelona in search of a tenth crown there. He knows his game is approaching peak level. Nadal now is not that far behind Roger Federer in the Race to London. Federer has amassed 4045 points to lead the pack, but Nadal has closed the gap and he currently stands at 3235, only 810 points behind the Swiss. Nadal could pick up 500 points if he wins Barcelona and he will then go to Madrid and Rome, knowing that he could collect a lot more points with strong showings in those Masters 1000 events. Perhaps he will pick up another 1600 points combined in Spain and Italy, with the chance to pile on another 2000 by ruling at Roland Garros.

The view here is that things are looking up for Rafael Nadal.

Read more articles by Steve Flink

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