When Rafael Nadal eventually hangs up his rackets, he might just donate one or two of them to Monte Carlo. Specifically, at the Monte Carlo Country Club, the most picturesque of all ATP Tour venues and the place that for one week every April, the Spaniard makes his own.
For the past seven years, Nadal has arrived on the French Riviera in various levels of physical shape but each time he has walked away with the winner’s trophy after yet another domination of the field on his favourite clay surface.
Early next week, the Spaniard will begin his quest for an unprecedented eight straight title when the Monte Carlo Rolex Masters title gets under way. To put it into context, in the Open Era, no other man has won a tournament more than five times in a row.
His first title there came in 2005 – just after the accession of Prince Albert to the role of sovereign prince of the principality – with a four-set victory over Argentina’s Guillermo Coria. Since then, he has beaten Roger Federer in the final three times and Novak Djokovic, Fernando Verdasco and David Ferrer once apiece. He has not lost a set there since the 2009 final with Djokovic. No wonder he loves the place.
“This is the Masters tournament where I feel more emotion when I’m playing, because here in 2003 was where everything started,” Nadal said after beating Ferrer in the 2011 final. “I played qualifiers here, won two matches and was for the very first time in my career, in the top 100.”
That year was when the tennis world sat up and took notice of Nadal for the first time. After beating the experienced Slovak Karol Kucera in round one, a 17-year-old Nadal ripped apart the then defending French Open champion Albert Costa for the loss of just four games in round two.
It was a stunning arrival on the scene and after missing the tournament in 2004, he was back in 2005 and in the final he beat Coria, the runner-up at the French Open the previous summer.
“I am very happy to come back to Monte Carlo this year,” Nadal said recently, with just a hint of understatement. “It is one of my favourite tournaments without a doubt. I have had some great success there and it’s a tournament that’s very special for me. It’s fantastic.”
This year’s tournament could be the toughest yet for Nadal, whose most recent title came at the French Open last June. Not only did he struggle with a knee injury on the hard courts of Miami, he has world No 1 Novak Djokovic gunning for his crown.
The Serb denied Nadal in the finals of the Masters 1000 events in both Madrid and Rome last year and took advantage of the Davis Cup tie played between France and the United States in Monte Carlo last weekend to get in some early practice.
But another of the Spaniard’s rivals, Andy Murray, feels Nadal has a natural advantage at the start of the clay-court season.
“Rafa probably steps on a clay court and feels comfortable straight away,” Murray said this week. “I’m not sure if that’s the case with Novak but I would say that Rafa is the most natural on the clay. He’s going to go to Monte Carlo and play well, that’s for sure, because that’s his surface.”
“For me, to win seven times in a row at any tournament is almost impossible,” Nadal said after last year’s final. “But to win Monte Carlo, when all the best players in the world are here and you always have tough matches, is impossible to imagine. I am very lucky, I think.”