Indeed, he made significant progress last autumn, but his 2016 campaign commenced distressingly. He lost in the opening round of the Australian Open to Fernando Verdasco. He was beaten in the semifinals in a pair of clay court events that he ought to have captured— in Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro. After an uplifting semifinal showing at Indian Wells, he retired at 0-3 down in the final set of his opening match at Miami against Damir Dzumhur with dizziness.
Heading into Monte Carlo, Nadal must have wondered what it would take to translate productive practice sessions into triumphs of lasting value in the competitive arena. During his long slump, he was always painfully candid about his growing doubts and lingering concerns regarding the state of his game. Some were critical of Nadal for talking so openly about his vulnerabilities, but I believe it was commendable. Too often athletes spin the press and public with self serving comments; Nadal has consistently been honest and forthright, and he did not shy away from the scars of his disappointments these last few years. He simply vowed to do everything in his power to strive for a reversal of fortunes.
That is why Nadal has seldom seemed so utterly relieved and exhilarated after winning a tennis tournament as he did on Sunday. Capping a week that broke entirely in his favor, the Spaniard halted Gael Monfils 7-5, 5-7, 6-0 in the final of the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters. It was the ninth time Nadal has secured this prestigious Masters 1000 title. He thus took his 48th career clay court title, placing him only one behind Open Era men’s leader Guillermo Vilas. Moreover, appearing in his 100th career singles final, Nadal sealed a 68th crown. He moved back into a tie with Novak Djokovic by claiming a 28th Masters 1000 tournament triumph.
But what matters more than anything else is that Nadal celebrated his finest hour psychically since his ninth Roland Garros title run two years ago in Monte Carlo. After he came through on the red clay of Paris in 2014, an often injured and sometimes ill Nadal did not win another tournament the rest of that season. In 2015, he managed to amass three titles on the ATP World Tour in Buenos Aires, Stuttgart and Hamburg, all relatively minor events.The last of those successes was on the German clay last summer in early August. He had played 14 tournaments since that victory in Hamburg, but had never been the last man standing.
And so the stakes were inordinately high when Nadal collided with a top of the line Monfils. Walking on court for this highly appealing clash, Nadal realized he held an 11-2 career series lead over the supremely athletic Frenchman. Not once had he lost to his rival on a clay court. But Monfils was primed for this confrontation; for that matter, so was Nadal.
The tennis sparkled all across the first set on both sides of the net, although Nadal was setting the tactical agenda and keeping Monfils predominantly on a string. The Spaniard was opening up the court with cagey precision, while Monfils scampered from side to side, prolonging the rallies, but seemingly killing himself in the process. Nadal was playing essentially on his own terms, moving Monfils from side to side methodically and skillfully, running the Frenchman ragged. Monfils made some outstanding running forehand winners from way behind the baseline, but those were flickering moments.
Over the course of the first set, Nadal controlled his own destiny. And yet, Monfils is a deceptively staunch competitor, looking depleted and defeated between points, rediscovering his strength and durability over and over again as the adrenaline flowed. Perhaps Nadal developed a false sense of security at times. Be that as it may, this pair of 29-year-old warriors pushed each other to the hilt—even if the Frenchman was breathing much harder and covering a much wider court span.
At 1-1, Nadal built a 40-15 lead, but Monfils erupted with a blazing forehand down the line winner. Nadal drove a two-hander long, and then Monfils struck gold again with a crosscourt backhand winner, moving to break point with that stunning shot. Nadal handled that challenge ably, releasing a backhand down the line drop shot, setting up a forehand volley winner into the open court. He held on for 2-1. Nadal broke in the following game with some magnificent defense that eventually opened up an opportunity to approach the net. His approach elicited an errant backhand pass from Monfils. It was 3-1 for the man from Mallorca.
Back before his recent woes, Nadal would have been off and running. He would almost surely have taken that one service break lead and made it count. But he played an abysmal game, missing three out of five first serves, making three unforced errors off the ground, double faulting once. Monfils broke back for 2-3, and rallied from 15-40 to reach 3-3, serving an ace on one break point and making a scintillating forehand inside in winner on the second. Nadal was in another bind at 0-30 in the seventh game, but he swept four points in a row, finishing off that game with a forehand drop shot winner and a crosscourt forehand winner into a vacant court. A beleaguered Monfils was left stranded, dazed and winded after being outmaneuvered by his wily adversary.
Confident once more, Nadal broke for 5-3 as Monfils double faulted and followed with a succession of unprovoked mistakes. Nadal was serving for the set in the ninth game, seemingly poised to succeed. But Monfils commenced that game with a forehand down the line winner. Nadal trailed 15-40, but took the next point easily and made it to deuce by prevailing in a magnificent 31 stroke exchange, sending a backhand crosscourt at an acute angle to create the opening for a backhand down the line winner. At deuce, Monfils answered resoundingly, prevailing in a 26 stroke rally with a forehand down the line winner. Nadal double faulted on the following point.
Now serving at 4-5, Monfils drifted to 15-40. Nadal squandered that first set point by smothering a topspin forehand into the net. Monfils wiped away the second with a backhand drop shot angled crosscourt. Nadal garnered a third set point, but came out on the wrong end of a 33 stroke rally, driving a backhand narrowly long. Monfils held on steadfastly for 5-5, but Nadal played a solid game to hold for 6-5. He earned a fourth set point in the twelfth game, but gave it away flagrantly with a forehand down the line unforced error. He quickly got to set point for the fifth time, and Monfils double faulted. After 75 debilitating minutes, with Monfils clearly much more fatigued than his opponent, the set had gone deservedly to the Spaniard.
Logic suggested that Nadal would march on comfortably to victory with Monfils having put forth such a valiant yet unrewarded effort. But Nadal faltered early in the second set. At 1-1, 30-15, he double faulted. He then missed a routine running forehand long and netted a forehand down the line. Monfils had the break for 2-1, and advanced to 3-1 despite falling behind 0-40 in the fourth game.
Nadal was deteriorating while Monfils regained energy and enthusiasm. Nadal served at 1-3, 30-40, but saved that crucial break point with a stinging inside in forehand drawing a netted backhand on the stretch from Monfils. Nadal held on for 2-3 and broke at love for 3-3. But Monfils was battling ferociously. He broke Nadal again for 4-3 with a crackling forehand winner up the line, only to lose his own delivery in the following game. It was 4-4. Nadal proceeded to play his best service game of the match, holding at love with two winners and two other aggressive points.
Now Monfils was serving to stay in the match at 4-5 in the second set. He somehow summoned the strength to hold at 15 for 5-5 after Nadal opened that game with a deflating netted backhand unforced error down the line. The eleventh game was furiously fought for by both competitors. Nadal rallied from 15-40 to deuce, but Monfils won a 27 stroke exchange as the Spaniard wasted a journey up to the net, popping up a forehand drop volley, allowing Monfils to rip a forehand pass that was unanswerable. Nadal saved a third break point, but then narrowly missed a backhand crosscourt and an inside out forehand. Monfils improbably was ahead 6-5.Serving-and-volleying twice, mixing up his game beautifully, catching the Spaniard off guard, Monfils held at 15 to win the set 7-5, astounding the highly charged audience and seemingly even himself.
After two hours and twenty one minutes, the match moved on to a third set. But while an implacable Nadal remained typically primed for battle, Monfils was totally spent. The Spaniard held at 15 for 1-0 in the third set. Down 15-30 in the second game, a weary Monfils double faulted consecutively to hand Nadal the break for 2-0. Nadal held at 30 for 3-0 with some outstanding play off his devastatingly potent and effective forehand.At deuce in the fourth game, a resolute and purposeful Nadal produced an impeccable forehand drop shot winner down the line. Then, at break point, he came forward commandingly, making a solid overhead to force Monfils into a mistake off the backhand.
With two breaks in hand, Nadal was fully in charge, holding at 15 for 5-0 with a well placed serve down the T setting up an inside out forehand winner. Monfils had no miracles left. The Spaniard concluded the contest in style, making a sparkling forehand down the line winner from well outside the court and far behind the baseline: 7-5, 5-7, 6-0 Nadal.
In many ways, Nadal’s basic outlook and entire mindset were sweepingly altered by the startling departure of Novak Djokovic in the second round. Not only had the Serbian ruled in Monte Carlo two of the previous three years, but he had not bowed out so early in any tournament since 2013. Moreover, he had failed only twice failed to reach the final in 21 tournament appearances since the start of 2015. Although Djokovic can—like other leading players— be more vulnerable in early rounds as he gets acclimated in a new venue and different conditions, the fact remains that he almost always successfully makes the transition.
But perhaps his long run of triumphs caught up with the world No. 1 in Monte Carlo as he performed in a clay court tournament for the first time since his loss to Stan Wawrinka in the final of the 2015 edition of Roland Garros. Facing world No. 55 Jiri Vesely in the second round after a first round bye, Djokovic never really found his range. From the outset, he was well below par, especially on the return of serve against a deceptively tall, 6’6″ left-handed adversary from the Czech Republic.
In the opening set, the man many consider the best ever on the return of serve was sorely lacking in that capacity. In fact, Vesely, a smart strategic server but hardly a powerhouse, won 11 of 12 first serve points and 9 of 10 on his second delivery. Imagine the redoubtable Djokovic winning only two return of serve points in an entire set, but that is precisely what happened on the red clay. Vesely, meanwhile, was cagey and solid off the ground, barely missing off either side. He kept Djokovic off guard with brilliant use of the backhand drop shot.
Vesely took that set 6-4, but from 2-2 in the second set, Djokovic at last found some timing on his returns, stepped up his pace off the ground, and got more depth in the rallies. He won four games in a row, securing 14 of the last 17 points to reach level territory at one set all. But, inexplicably, Djokovic did not sustain his momentum. He lost his serve to start the third set, broke right back, then was broken again in the third game. The top seed and defending champion never recovered from that dismal beginning of the final set. Vesely admirably refused to buckle, moving on to a 6-4, 2-6, 6-4 victory, turning the tournament upside down in the process.
A day later, Nadal took on a daunting and crucial assignment, confronting No. 12 seed Dominic Thiem, the same young man who had upended the Spaniard in the semifinals of Buenos Aires on clay in mid-February. On that occasion, at match point down, Thiem unleashed a courageous inside out forehand winner. This time around, in the round of 16, Nadal realized the size of his opportunity with Djokovic out of the tournament. Yet the Spaniard also understood that Thiem is a champion in the making, an overpowering ball striker who can hit winners from anywhere on the court. Gaining revenge for his Buenos Aires setback was going to be no facile task.
The first set of that highly anticipated clash was played with unbridled passion and utter determination by both competitors. Thiem was largely setting the tempo with his explosive forehand and devastating one-handed topspin backhand. His two way arsenal of attack had the Spaniard scrambling to stay in the rallies, and the Austrian’s brand of play made it difficult for the Spaniard to impose himself from the backcourt.
Yet Nadal was unwavering, enterprising and masterful on defense. At 1-1, Thiem chased down a Nadal drop shot and sent a scorching forehand crosscourt for a winner. He had the early break, and moved ahead 3-1 before Nadal drew level at 3-3. Thereafter, Nadal was like a boxer constantly against the ropes, hoping to survive the heavy onslaught from across the net. At 3-3, he was down 0-40 but somehow held on, saving four break points as Thiem misfired narrowly on the big points. At 4-4, Nadal fought off six more break points in a seven deuce game. And then, at 5-5, the Spaniard’s pugnacity and supreme resilience surfaced again as he cast aside two more break points.
Thiem was probably shellshocked. He was broken in the following game on a double fault. After 80 minutes, Thiem had lost a 7-5 set to a man whose poise, perspicacity and deep reservoir of pride were simply too much to overcome. To his credit, the 22-year-old regrouped to break Nadal at love in the third game of the second set, establishing a 2-1 lead. But the Spaniard proceeded to capture five of the next six games to move past Thiem 7-5, 6-3. It was a superb display of willpower from Nadal, and another hard learning experience for the immensely talented Thiem. In Miami, Thiem lost to Djokovic 6-3, 6-4, squandering 15 of 16 break point opportunities. Against Nadal in Monte Carlo, the Austrian made good on only one of sixteen break point opportunities in the critical first set. He will learn in time to exploit his opportunities on the big points much more frequently; meanwhile, Djokovic in Miami and Nadal in Monte Carlo taught Thiem something essential about the elusive nature of winning tennis matches at the highest levels of the game.
After cutting down Thiem, Nadal then took apart Stan Wawrinka 6-1, 6-4. Wawrinka was out of sorts in the opening set, his game essentially in disarray. But Nadal was probing, purposeful, and frequently capable of coaxing errors off both sides from the burly Swiss with astute changes of pace and trajectory. He played sound percentage tennis, and Wawrinka self destructed. In the second set, Nadal upped the ante, began seizing control of points, and fired away more freely off his forehand. The Spaniard broke for 3-2, but Wawrinka opened the sixth game with a blinding forehand down the line winner. Nadal tightened up, double faulting tamely into the net for 0-40. He lost his serve at love.
Wawrinka was now more disciplined and determined, holding from 15-40 for 4-3. But Nadal was unswerving, holding at 15 for 4-4, then breaking Wawrinka in the following game. Serving for the match, Nadal surged to 40-15 before the Swiss saved two match points. On the following point, however, Wawrinka erred off the forehand under little pressure, and Nadal closed out the account on his third match point with a trademark wide serve in the ad court eliciting an errant return from Wawrinka.
Now riding high after landing in the penultimate round, Nadal took on Andy Murray, who has improved markedly as a clay court player over the last couple of years. Murray had obliterated a terribly off form Nadal 6-3, 6-2 in the final of Madrid last year, taking that Masters 1000 crown on the heels of winning his first clay court career title in Munich.
In the early stages of their Monte Carlo confrontation, Murray seemed capable of replicating his top of the line performance against Nadal last May in Madrid. He was driving through his forehand persuasively, keeping Nadal pinned behind the baseline. He was serving with power and precision, using the backhand drop shot effectively, and refusing to allow Nadal many chances to dictate.
Although Nadal fended off a break point in the opening game and stayed with Murray until 2-2 in the first set, it was clear that Murray had the upper hand. The British player held at 15 for 3-2, closing out that stellar game by implementing a backhand drop shot that set up a backhand volley winner down the line, then acing Nadal down the T. He broke Nadal at 15 for 4-2, and then opened up a 30-0 lead in the seventh game.
Murray had won ten of twelve points, but then dropped three in a row. Nadal had reached break point, but Murray aced the Spaniard out wide in the ad court. Nadal garnered a second break point chance, but Murray erased that one forcefully, taking advantage of a short return, releasing a forehand crosscourt winner. Eventually, Murray held for 5-2 with a flat backhand crosscourt winner off a crosscourt forehand from Nadal. Murray broke again in the following game to seal the set.
Nadal immediately broke serve to start the second set as Murray double faulted for 15-40. The Spaniard then connected impeccably with a backhand crosscourt winner. But Murray broke right back for 1-1, as Nadal pressed in some cases and became too passive in other instances. Both men held to make it 2-2, with Nadal serving a morale boosting ace down the T at 40-30 in that fourth game. Murray held on for 3-2, but Nadal answered with his most inspired play of the afternoon. Serving at 30-0 in the sixth game, Nadal concluded a dazzling nineteen stroke rally with a forehand down the line, taken early off a deep crosscourt backhand from his adversary. He held at love for 3-3, and now clearly had his bearings.
At break point in the seventh game, Nadal correctly anticipated a Murray overhead, driving a forehand passing shot up the line for a winner to gain the break for 4-3. But he trailed 15-40 in the eighth game—the single most critical juncture of the match. He met that moment assertively, coming forward behind a backhand down the line to put away an overhead. At 30-40, Nadal’s flat backhand down the line approach was too much for Murray. Nadal then advanced to game point, but Murray responded ably with a forehand volley winner.
Nadal, however, was unswayed. He went wide in the deuce court with a fine first serve that opened up an avenue for an unstoppable forehand to the open court. Now, at game point for the second time, Nadal aced Murray down the T. After some arduous work, Nadal stood at 5-3. He pressed hard for another break, but, after four deuces, Murray held on. Nadal promptly held at love to take the set. He had elevated his game so substantially while Murray seemed subdued and uncertain.
Murray managed to recover from 0-40 to deuce in the first game of the final set, but Nadal was unrelenting with his ground game. He made consecutive forehand drop shot winners to get the crucial break for 1-0. The Spaniard held at love for 2-0 with ultra aggression, but Murray served well to hold for 1-2. In holding at love for 3-1, Nadal was virtually letter perfect, opening that game with a stupendous forehand down the line winner off a Murray forehand down the line, reaching 40-0 with a gorgeous backhand down the line winner.
Nadal was soaring, and Murray no longer could rise consistently to such a high level. The No. 5 seed broke at love for 4-1, then held at 15 for 5-1 with unmistakable authority. Murray did hold on for 2-5 at 30, and then the two-time Grand Slam tournament champion summoned all of the energy he had left. Nadal advanced to double match point at 40-15, but was too adventuresome with a forehand down the line that went wide, and then anxiously netted a forehand for deuce.
The clay court maestro had Murray on a string before producing an inside in forehand winner, moving to match point for the third time. He received a time violation warning, and then made a forehand unforced error. Nadal reached match point for the fourth time, but Murray’s backhand crosscourt return was a beauty, landing on the line for a winner. Murray then had two break point opportunities, but Nadal wiped them away. He subsequently arrived at match point for the fifth time, and got across the finish line with a forehand down the line drawing an error from Murray. Nadal was victorious 2-6, 6-4, 6-2. It was his biggest victory of the year.
As for Monfils, he was the chief beneficiary of Djokovic’s defeat on that half of the draw. Monfils would have taken on the Serbian in the round of 16, but instead he faced Vesely, who never came close to touching the heights he attained against Djokovic. Monfils romped in straight sets. He next accounted for lucky loser Marcel Granollers, setting up a semifinal with the ever enigmatic Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
Tsonga, of course, had prevailed in an absorbing quarterfinal encounter with Roger Federer. Federer was playing in his first tournament since having arthroscopic knee surgery in early February. He had performed reasonably well in straight set triumphs over Guillermo Garcia-Lopez and Roberto Bautista Agut. But the 34-year-old’s rustiness from lack of match play surfaced against Tsonga, a man who has twice ousted Federer in Grand Slam championships. Federer returned surprisingly well in the opening set, breaking the big serving Frenchman three times. Tsonga retaliated with three breaks of his own to salvage the second set.
The third set was the most closely contested. Both men assiduously held onto their serves deep into the set, as some order was restored. Tsonga served to stay in the match at 4-5, double faulting for 0-15, winning the next point, following with a bungled forehand approach into the net. He was down 15-30, two points away from a three set defeat.
Tsonga seemed to be unravelling, but he found his resolve and recovered his poise. Federer had been throwing in more than his usual share of wayward forehands. Tsonga wisely went to that side, directing an inside in forehand to the vulnerable side of the Swiss. Federer could not make that shot on the run. Tsonga followed with a terrific first serve down the T, and Federer netted his backhand return. At 40-30, Tsonga delivered an even more potent first serve to the backhand, and Federer missed again on the return.
It was 5-5. At 15-30 in the eleventh game, Federer’s poorly struck forehand swing volley approach set up Tsonga for a forehand winning passing shot crosscourt. Tsonga took the next point with a much tougher and more impressive forehand passing shot winner down the line. The 31-year-old served for the match at 6-5, and fell behind 0-30. But he rallied to 30-30, when Federer followed his backhand return in, only to net a forehand volley. He did not conceal his exasperation with that mistake. Tsonga closed it out on the next point, 3-6, 6-2, 7-5.
And so Tsonga travelled on to his appointment with Monfils in the penultimate round. The battle of the charismatic Frenchmen was a mismatch. Tsonga’s dynamic forehand was a major liability, and he finished at 46% on first serves. He was broken five out of eight times. Monfils relied largely on his legs and a healthy margin for error off the ground, winning easily 6-1, 6-3.
But, of course, there was nothing easy for Monfils as he faced Nadal in the final. He fought for as long as he could, went as far as possible, but could not prevent the Spaniard from taking a title he wanted ever so badly. Nadal has played better finals to be sure. He should have wrapped up the first set sooner, and could have been a straight set winner had he been more focussed in the second set. He must be proud to have been part of a great match, and delighted to have won it. But the fact remains that he needs to build on an outstanding week over the next month and beyond.
Winning a tournament of such importance was a major step in the right direction for the prideful Rafael Nadal, but, to put himself in a position to win the French Open for the tenth time, to find the ideal mindset, he will need to raise the bar even higher. Meanwhile, this remarkable fellow with the largest heart in tennis can pause briefly, celebrate his timely Monte Carlo triumph, and envision a seven week stretch ahead that could perhaps be one of the most compelling periods of his illustrious career.