Watching Rafael Nadal play on clay over the years, it has always struck me that there is almost an unwritten rule about the Spaniard on his beloved surface.
One, that no other Spaniard is allowed to beat him (unless he is injured) and the second, that no one, let alone a Spaniard, is allowed to beat him in Monte Carlo. It’s eight years since he last tasted defeat in the principality but he begins the clay-court season, as ever, knowing that this is his big chance to rack up the points and lay down a marker to his rivals for the French Open.
But this year, if he is to be believed, he has serious concerns about the state of his left knee and will not really know what kind of shape he is in until he get into a match situation, or a few match situations. It could, of course, be a smart tactic to take the pressure off himself as Novak Djokovic tries to steal his clay-court crown but given his history of knee trouble and the way he sounded in pre-tournament press, if he wins his record eighth straight title here this weekend, it might go down as the best of the lot.
But what if Djokovic beats him this weekend? Would that be a psychological blow big enough to take him all the way to glory at the French Open, a win that would make it four straight grand slam titles in a row? Djokovic himself, doubts it.
“I don’t think so, to be honest. Every tournament is a different tournament. On this level, momentum changes so we’ll see how that is going to play out in the future. The fact of the matter is that he probably plays the best tennis in Monte-Carlo, at a clay court event outside Paris,” he said. “He has won seven times in a row here. From a personal perspective, I think the conditions are slower than Madrid, which has altitude, Rome and Paris, so maybe that works in his favour more.
“We’ve played already here finals in 2009, good match, but Nadal is the ultimate challenge on clay. He’s the king of clay. He’s the best tennis player ever to play on this surface and one of the best tennis players ever, so that says enough.”
“Obviously knowing in 2011 I won Rome and Madrid, winning against Rafa in finals back-to-back gives me a lot of confidence.”
Ivan Ljubicic, a close friend of Djokovic, described the perils of focusing too much one opponent. “I had a short period in my career where I had a similar thing, playing three or four finals in a row against Roger (Federer) so it was really about thinking about him. It was positive in a way that I wouldn’t lose too much time on other opponents, but dangerous in another sense.
“I am sure that Rafa, more than Novak, is really focusing on getting to the final and then who knows who’s going to be on the other side of the court. If you think about it all the time, you just build up this pressure that once it really happens then you are more tense about it. Novak has never won here, because Rafa wins all the time, but he lives here and I am sure it would mean a lot to him.”
Novak is sporting a relatively short haircut this week but it’s nothing to Andy Murray’s shaven effort. Thankfully, the Scot’s barnet grows at the speed of a lush garden so it won’t be long before his old curls are back. But it seems there is something in the air at the moment with regard to hair because Maria Sharapova’s been showing off a new do of her own. Murray cut his own but I think we can guarantee that Maria actually went to a stylist. http://tennissimo.tumblr.com/post/21265582294/omfg-marias-new-haircut