1. In sports (and in life), we often base all our evaluations on the end result, and not on the processes that lead to that outcome. Context is forgotten. In tennis, the temptation is made easier by the fact you get someone hoisting a trophy at the end of an event. Who was the best player of any given tournament? Well, whoever ended up with the big trophy, obviously.
Was Rafael Nadal the best player last week in Monte-Carlo? Following the above logic, the answer is yes. But I can’t shake from my head this persistent thought that the best tennis player I saw roaming the ultra one-percenter Monte-Carlo Country Club was the Andy Murray from the first set of the semifinal against Nadal. The Muzzard was irresistible: he was fully committed to bossing Nadal around, belting deep, heavy forehands into all the right spots and punishing every Nadal short ball he saw. He confined Nadal to the nether regions of the court, denying him agency over most of the points played in that opening stanza.
Alas, it lasted all of one set. Murray went from serving 64% 1st serves in that glorious opener to just 39% in Set 2. Had he remained as composed and proactive during rallies as he was in the first set, he should have been able to navigate the ship to port, even with the first serve issues. But it was not to be: Murray’s mind started spiraling, the body language deteriorated, the willingness to dictate with the forehand from the middle of the court disappeared, and the end of the match was a reproachable mess.
But what makes Murray’s glorious Set 1 form even more fascinating is that he hadn’t even been very good for much of the event, either. He should have gone down to Benoit Paire, and was then fortunate to catch Milos Raonic after two grueling matches, and on Milos’ worst surface. There wasn’t much to learn from that 2 and 0 drubbing.
But still, I can’t stop thinking about how good Murray looked in that opening set against Nadal. Was it a mirage? Was it a first, concrete sign of actual upside in Andy Murray’s game in quite some time? To use Nadal’s catch phrase, we gonna see, no?
2. Following Nadal over the past two years has been a fascinating, yet difficult task. More precisely, evaluating Rafael Nadal has become very tricky on a week to week basis. The man goes from tournament to tournament seemingly chasing the legendary ghosts of his own past. In a way, that pursuit is pointless. It’s highly unlikely Rafael Nadal will ever be as good as he was during the spring/summer of 2008, or during his last post-injury revival in 2013. He’s about to turn 30, and he was a million miles on the odometer. And we all know how many times he’s had to go back to the shop for critical repairs.
But I guess what many like observers like myself have been looking for is a more delicate fall from grace. Nadal’s game has far too often looked like a caricature of itself — almost making it impossible to think that this was the man who dominated the elite of men’s tennis with an iron fist for a long time. We never really got a smooth, years-long transition where Nadal would mostly play at a high level, but falter here and there by a small margin. The fact that the Monte-Carlo win was his first Masters 1000 title in almost two full years (with only two finals of that level in between) says plenty. It would’ve even been understandable if Nadal’s slippage happened outside of clay, and that he would remain capable enough to dominate the dirt to some extent. But that hasn’t been the case. It was only a few months ago that Nadal went through the South American clay court swing and came out without even a runners-up plate to show for his airline miles.
In a way, Nadal is also fighting against the improbable narrative of his career. An injury layoff is quickly followed by a resurgence and a triumphant cry of “he’s back!” Big titles have inevitably followed the lows caused by his own body. Nadal has done this so many times that it’s made the tennis world think it’s just his normal rhythm, when it’s not really the norm for anyone. Hence, since the back injury that robbed Nadal of a chance to win the 2014 Australian Open, the question has remained pretty simple: is he back?
Is he back now?
I don’t know.
There was a quality about Nadal during Monte-Carlo that had been largely absent from his previous play: the ability to simply outlast opponents by avoiding beating himself. This isn’t saying that all Nadal did in Monte-Carlo was play defensive tennis. That was not the case. But his intensity and commitment remained in place even when he was being outclassed (like in the first set vs Thiem, and the first against Murray), or when he was making silly mistakes that extended a match unnecessarily (like the final vs Monfils). Throughout these challenging episodes, Nadal didn’t seem to get down on himself. He stuck with the match despite his serve not providing much help at all, or even after a few questionable forehands that either landed short or way too long. He didn’t let double faults on break points derail him, and he always tried to look for the patterns of play that saw him build an empire during the golden age of men’s tennis. His famous “colm” had returned.
In a way, this Monte-Carlo run was more like the gracefully declining Rafael Nadal that I had been looking for over the past two years. Still good enough to win a Masters 1000 on clay. Still good enough to beat a couple of top-10 players on the way there. But not good enough to guarantee him a Roland Garros trophy, or even another Masters 1000, given that fundamental issues remain within his game.
The other narrative Nadal is going to have to deal with in Barcelona this week is the one about him as a confidence player. How far can he carry the positive momentum of reclaiming the Monte-Carlo throne? Again, Nadal is chasing ghosts of past feats. The recent history does not allow anyone to pencil him in for any trophy.
Fortunately for everyone, Nadal himself doesn’t seem mired in these big picture dynamics. He’s been looking for a title like this for a while. I don’t think he’s under any delusion about the problems with his serve. But for once, he knows he’s good enough to beat most people on his favorite surface, and that’s all that matters for now.
3. Naturally, the question Nadal will keep facing until he answers it is whether he can actually beat Novak Djokovic. The latter put together a particularly poor performance vs Jiri Vesely in his first match, and deservedly saw the end of his insane streak of consecutive Masters 1000 finals reached (11), as well his streak of making a mind-boggling 18 straight Big Event finals (Slams, M1000s, WTFs).
The fact remains that Nadal hasn’t taken a set off Djokovic over their past 6 meetings. That’s 13 straight sets, 5 of which were on clay. Has Nadal bridged the gap? It’s really difficult to say, and who knows when we’ll have an answer. It’ll depend on whether Djokovic decides to play Madrid and/or Rome, and whether they both can set up their 49th match at either of those events.
Ever since his last defeat to Nadal at the 2014 French Open final, Djokovic has shown a rare ability to summon his best tennis when facing his biggest rival. And Djokovic’s best tennis usually involves eating up the kind of non-threatening serves Nadal was offering up in Monte-Carlo, along with the frequent lack of depth of shot.
So, once again, we gonna see, no?
4. Regardless of all the words above, Rafael Nadal has now won a Slam and a Masters 1000 event nine times. No man had ever done it even once, so that tells you the magnitude of Nadal’s accomplishment.
Nadal also reclaimed at least a partial share of the Masters 1000 title record. He had owned the previous mark for a long, long time, which makes it particularly ironic that the new mark set by Djokovic in Miami lasted all of a few weeks before it was matched.
It reminded me of the time Nadal matched Djokovic’s record for Masters 1000 titles in a season back in 2013. Djokovic had set the record during his remarkable 2011 season, when he won 5 Masters 1000 titles. At the time, the record seemed crazy — Nadal and Federer had shared the previous mark of 4 for 6 years. Turns out Djokovic’s mark lasted just two seasons as the lone holder.
It used to be that records like these lasted a long time in men’s tennis. But every single mark is under threat in the Big 4 era. It’s fun to try and imagine what the final number of Masters 1000 titles will be for Nadal and Djokovic. Will both reach 30? Will either make it to 35? 40? Kinda makes you want to fast forward through time and space just to know these little facts.
5. Dominic Thiem looks like the real deal. Yes, he’s been abysmal at converting break points vs two huge names (1 of 15 vs Djokovic in Miami, 2 of 17 vs Nadal in Monte-Carlo, though at least he was 1 of 1 vs Federer in Brisbane). But the significant silver lining from both matches is that Thiem created those opportunities in the first place.
The kid produces the kind of shots that tend to drive players into the Top-10. In a way, he does a lot of things Top-10 players tend to do, and the first set of his match against Nadal had the feel of a top-level bout. There was just too much pace, too much depth, too much athleticism to disregard Thiem as a passing fancy.
It’s useful to remember that while Thiem is 22 years old already, he’s relatively inexperienced when it comes to playing the elite. Half of his Top-10 matches (8 out of 16) have come in the past 52 weeks, and 6 of them just in the four months of action this season. It’s all relatively new to the kid, and every single elite player has gone through tough losses like the ones he suffered against Djokovic and Nadal.
But his big-event breakthrough seems imminent. I’m not saying he’s ready to hoist a Masters 1000 or win a Slam. But maybe a Masters 1000 semifinal or a Slam quarterfinal appearance looks well within reach this season.
6.Just as we were all getting used to David Goffin as a constant threat at the big events, he loses to lucky loser Marcel Granollers (a man with a 5–8 record this season who had lost in the final round of qualifying 6–3, 6–0 to then-World No. 125 Daniel Gimeno Traver) in the round of 16. Talk about an opportunity lost, particularly when you consider that Goffin had just beaten Granollers 4 and 4 in Miami this year.