Fear-factor makes Nadal still the man to beat en route to RG19

 - Simon Cambers

Nadal's incredible record on clay means he is the big favourite, even after another injury break

Rafael Nadal fist pumping during 2019 Indian Wells Masters 1000©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

There are still more than five weeks until Roland-Garros, and yet, as the world’s best players begin their clay-court campaigns this week in Monte Carlo, one name stands out above the rest.

For the past 15 years, Rafael Nadal has dominated the clay courts, winning Roland-Garros 11 times, Monte Carlo 11 times and Barcelona 11 times. He has been champion in Rome seven times, and even in the altitude of Madrid, he has still managed to take home the title four times.

With his 33rd birthday just around the corner, falling, as it always does, during Roland-Garros, Nadal knows he can’t go on forever and yet, after a blip between in 2015 and 2016, in the past two years he has asserted himself once more as the undisputed King of Clay.

Important to the Nadal mindset

Nadal begins his campaign on Wednesday at the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters, a tournament which means a lot to him. It is a love affair that began when, as a 16-year-old, he upset the then-defending Roland-Garros champion Albert Costa, bursting onto a stage he has dominated ever since.

In Paris, he has won 11 times, starting in 2005, with just two losses along the way, in 2009 to Robin Soderling in the fourth round, and in 2015, to a rampant Djokovic in the quarter-finals. Between times, he has won the title every year bar 2016, when injury took him out early on.

And even though it might seem a long way until Paris, what happens in Monte Carlo is important to the Nadal mindset as he builds towards Roland-Garros. The aura that he has built up over the years means that even though he has not played since the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells last month, when he picked up another knee injury, he remains the one they’re all talking about this week.

“Rafa is always a very clear favorite“

“Other than one guy…it's always open,” said world No 1 Novak Djokovic, who began his own campaign on Tuesday with a tough three-set win over Philipp Kohlschreiber of Germany.

“I think Rafa always is a very clear favorite on any clay court in the world, and it doesn't change.  He's still there.  I mean, obviously depends how he's feeling physically.  You know, I have seen him play here, so he's been here a few days.  Seems like he's fine. If he's physically fit, he's definitely the N. 1 guy on this surface without a doubt. After him, it’s quite open.”

Kei Nishikori knows full well what it’s like to face Nadal on clay. Last year, he made the final in Monte Carlo only to be beaten by the Spaniard. Nishikori said Monte Carlo is a particularly tough place to play Nadal.

“This surface suits his game a lot, more than on any other surface, more than any other clay-court tournament because this one is a a bit heavier,” he said. “For the opponent it’s not easy to hit winners and it’s much heavier than other clay-court events. I am sure he really feels comfortable playing this tournament.”

Still a massive threat for the biggest titles

Craig O’Shannessy, an analyst for the ATP Tour and part of Djokovic’s coaching team, said Nadal has made playing on clay almost an art.

“Nadal’s ability to save break points is incredible,” O’Shannessy told the ATP Tennis Radio podcast this week. “It almost becomes the toughest point to win in tennis. You watch him do it in this series of tournaments, leading into Paris, and if he’s doing that at a high rate, when the big points come, the 0-40s, the 15-40s, the ad-outs, if he’s saving those…he’s basically unbeatable.”

World No 2 Nadal showed he remains a massive threat for the biggest titles on all surfaces when he reached the final at the Australian Open in January. He takes on fellow Spaniard Roberto Bautista-Agut in the second round in Monte Carlo on Wednesday and though he knows his dominance on clay will end one day, he remains in good spirits, despite the injury breaks over the past 18 months that have affected his momentum.

Rafael Nadal posing with his trophy at 2018 Monte-Carlo Masters 1000©Antoine Couvercelle/FFT
Nadal: “It's always like a comeback“

“It has been a tough year and a half for me,” he said in Monte Carlo. “It’s always tough to have a clear view about how I am because I had too many stops in between. I didn’t find the way to play three weeks in a row or this kind of stuff without problems, so it has been hard for me personally.

“Now it’s about working every day, trying to make small improvements in every practice because I had to stop after Indian Wells for a while again and start slow, so it’s always like a comeback.

“I started (practising) two weeks ago and yes, my knee is good, so happy for that. Now I need to work on the tennis. That’s the goal. I arrived here on Friday as usual, I had some hours of practice and I hope the competition puts me in the rhythm that I need.”

Everybody else is a dark horse

Traditionally, Nadal finds a way to win Monte Carlo and then only gets better from that point on, all the way to his beloved Court Philippe Chatrier, where he has been king so many times.

If he’s to do it again, his knees need to hold up and though he’s scheduled to play Barcelona, Madrid and Rome before Paris, he is ready to adjust if necessary. If all goes well, though, he remains the man everyone has to beat.

“In these tournaments, you must always put Rafa at No 1,” O’Shannessy said. “Somebody must take him out of the draw. As soon as he’s taken out of the draw then we can start talking about everybody else. All conversations start with Rafa, everybody else is a dark horse.”