Spool back to the spring of 2003. Prince Rainier, Grace Kelly’s widower, still ruled over that bit of rock called Monaco. Roger Federer was still trying to win his first grand slam title – perhaps it would come at that year’s French Open or Wimbledon? Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray weren’t even distant rumours; outside of Serbia and Scotland, their names meant little to anybody.
So much has changed in nine years; that was an age ago, both for the Grimaldis (Monaco’s royal family) and the clay-court world.
For you have to go back that far for Nadal’s last defeat at the Monte Carlo Country Club. That spring was also the first proper sighting of Rafa. “I was a teenager in a hurry, madly hyperactive, operating at a thousand revolutions a minute in training as in competition,” Nadal has recalled, in the pages of his autobiography.
Guillermo Coria was one of the greats of modern clay-court tennis, and is arguably the finest clay-courter not to have to won the French Open. But he does have one distinction – he is the only player to have beaten Nadal in Monaco. Admittedly, this was not exactly man against man. Nadal was only 16 at the time. He was still baby Rafa, man-child Rafa. And as someone sitting courtside that day noted, “mental and physical fatigue from his previous matches set in”.
To reach the third round, Nadal had won four matches. Two were in the qualifying competition, and then in the first round of the tournament proper he defeated Slovakia’s Karol Kucera. That was followed by one of the most astonishing results in the history of the tournament when Nadal defeated Albert Costa, the French Open champion. It was little wonder, then, that his mind and his muscles were tired when he played Coria.
But it wasn’t as if he was uncompetitive, with the first set going to a tiebreak. Coria was also tense in that opening set, perhaps understandably so as he played someone who, at the start of the week, he had known next to nothing about. “I wasn’t feeling my game properly. I didn’t know exactly what tactics I should play against him. But I was able to win that tiebreaker, and in the second set I was more relaxed and it became easier,” Coria said afterwards. “At his age, I was playing the junior circuit.”
Nadal lost the second set 6-2. That was all back before Rafa truly became Rafa. The effort that Nadal put into his tennis that spring – he also beat fellow Majorcan Carlos Moya in the Hamburg tournament – meant that he moved quickly up the rankings, going from 199 to 109 inside four months.
But “operating at a thousand revolutions a minute” wasn’t what his body wanted. “I had a badly-timed setback, a shoulder injury in training that took two weeks to cure and stopped me from making my debut at the French Open in Roland Garros,” Nadal has recalled. “But shortly thereafter I played Wimbledon for the first time, making it to the third round. The ATP voted me 2003’s ‘Newcomer of the Year’.”
He missed the 2004 Monte Carlo tournament through injury, and in the 2005 final he had his revenge against Coria. Every year since then, the tournament has finished with Nadal biting into the trophy, and this week he will be attempting to win an eighth successive title.