The storyline of the first quarter of the 2017 ATP season has largely about Roger Federer and his extraordinary resurgence, having won the three biggest titles so far.
With the 35-year-old scripting records like magic, one could almost be forgiven for forgetting the other major storyline in men’s tennis – the one on the other end of Federer’s 18th Grand Slam triumph. Despite lack of titles – finishing as runner up at three tournaments – Rafael Nadal has been scripting his own story of resurgence this season.
Second only to Federer in terms of ATP points, Nadal has slowly, but steadily, overturned last season’s injury woes and form slump to climb up to World No 5 and has looked far more like his former, belligerent self than he has in the last couple of years. However, he doesn’t have the titles to show for it.
While it was Federer who halted his otherwise phenomenal run in the final at the Australian Open and Miami Open, he also unexpectedly fell to Sam Querry at the Acapulco final. But if there’s something his performance in the first four months of 2017 has showed, it’s that he is fitter and stronger than the player who had to excruciatingly withdraw from the French Open last year, and with an altered approach with new coach Carlos Moya, is on the threshold of a title.
And knowing Nadal’s prowess, these runner-up trophies were just teasers, the real action will start when the clay court season begins in earnest with the Monte Carlo Masters on Monday. With three clay court Masters 1000 and one ATP 500 tournament ahead of the French Open in May, Nadal stands a chance to not only catch up with, but perhaps go ahead of Federer in terms of 2017 performance. Not that the 14-time Major champion has anything left to prove on clay, but the fact Federer will be absent for most part o the season, will give Nadal even more motivation to blaze ahead on his beloved red dirt, and go beyond the Swiss’ 2017 title tally.
King of Clay
Nadal is not revered as the “King of Clay” for nothing – his numbers in the clay court season are staggering, to say the least.
Since 2009, Nadal has won a combined 29 titles and amassed 2,448 points at the four big clay tournaments before the French Open – the Monte-Carlo Masters, the Madrid Open, the Internazionali BNL d’Italia and Barcelona. In fact, the Spaniard is the only player in the Open Era to have won a tournament nine times, and he has achieved that with three different events on clay – Monte Carlo Masters, Barcelona Open and Roland Garros.
The current World No 5 has also won the Monte-Carlo Masters an unprecedented nine times, another record, and is set for his 10th win. He has 46-match win streak at the tournament between 2005 and 2013, a world record for the longest streak by any male or female player at a single tournament in the history of tennis.
The bottom line is straight – if Federer overshadowed Nadal’s achievements so far in 2017, the start of the clay season means it is Nadal’s turn to rule supreme in his kingdom. And if his performance so far is any indication, there will be very little stopping the Spaniard from stamping his authority on clay, once again.
Nadal began the year at Brisbane, where he lost to Milos Raonic in the quarters. He followed it up with an exceptional run at the Australian Open, overcoming the likes of Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov, en route his loss in the final to Federer. He had a good run in Acapulco as well, but went down in the final to Sam Querrey. His Indian Wells sojourn was cut short when he ran into Federer once again in the Round of 16. Nadal then made his fifth Miami Open final, chasing his first title there, but fell to Federer again, the third time in three months. En route, he also played his 1000th ATP match, with an incredible winning percentage of 82.19%, ahead of Jimmy Connors and Roger Federer.
While Nadal’s performance in 2017 so far may seem below par for a player of Nadal’s caliber, it has been a big improvement on his hard court showing in the past few seasons.
‘Fight for everything’
The nine-time French Open Champion is looking forward to playing on clay, he has set his sights on fighting for all the titles. “I think I am close to what I need to be. I am at a very high level of tennis and I believe I am ready to win title. I’m playing well enough to fight for everything. I have good hopes that I going to be ready for Monte-Carlo... If I am ready for that, I think I am very excited about playing back on clay again,” Nadal said.
The 14-time Grand Slam champion has very rarely been an understudy in tennis, even in his storied rivalry with Federer, even on his least favourite surface, even despite multiple injuries and surgeries. But on the clay court, Nadal is the undisputed king. Although he has suffered a sort of slump in recent years – by his standards, not winning the French Open for the last two years counts – this season has shown that the 30-year-old has no plans of slowing down.
Nadal enters the Monte Carlo Masters draw as the fourth seed, in the same half as reigning Roland Garros champion Novak Djokovic, but he will be touted as the favourite to clinch another record-breaking 10th title, for starters. With Madrid, Rome and Paris on the radar, we will see an even hungrier Nadal take the clay court with a single-minded focus on fighting for all the four titles before the all-important La Decima or the tenth one at Roland Garros.