It isn’t exactly a bolt from the blue. But nobody saw it coming. It’s been a while since these words have been written as a headline – Rafael Nadal wins a title. And whether you’re a Roger Federer fan or Novak Djokovic fan or Andy Murray fan or not, it will gladden most tennis-following hearts that the name ‘Nadal’ has been engraved onto a trophy after so long. It’s been a while – and of course, it had to happen on red clay, the surface that made the legend. It is perhaps destiny that Nadal, who has been suffering from a loss of health, form and confidence for a year and more, finally won his 28th Masters title, two years after he won his 27th, at Monte Carlo – a venue where he now has 9 Masters titles. A world record. That’s right – he won 8 consecutive titles here till 2012, until Djokovic defeated him in 2013.
He fell to the clay and clenched his fists and closed his eyes. This title meant a lot more than it would have meant, say, 2 years ago. This title meant that he is still up there, that he can still match it with the best, and that he is not finished. At 29, stuck on 14 Grand Slam titles and Djokovic’s bunny, it looked like the King Of Clay would be dethroned all over again on his favorite surface. But then, a miracle happened this week.
Nadal beating Murray in the semis or Monfils in the finals wasn’t the miracle. It came in the form of Djokovic – losing to World no. 5, Jiri Vesely. That almost never happens. Nobody remembers the last time the Serb World no. 1 lost to a player outside the top 10. But it happened, and just like that, the defending champion was out – which meant that “when the cat is away, the mice will play.” Suddenly, it meant that Nadal and Murray and Federer and every other mere mortal tennis player left in the draw were in with a massive chance to snatch a title without having to defeat their nemesis Djokovic. Christmas came nine months early, and most of them jumped at the opportunity.
Federer, unfortunately, was returning from an injury after more than 2 months. He lost to Jo-Wilfred Tsonga in the quarterfinals. But Nadal, sensing an opening and a rare opportunity after so long, gritted it out and defeated not only Murray, but his own doubts. Facing the home favorite and World no. 16 Gael Monfils in the final was not going to be easy. But Nadal traded breaks and traded highs and lows, looking the most vulnerable on this surface for years, and yet found a way to peak when it mattered. Monfils spent all his energy to win the second set, and tanked in the third, getting bageled by an ecstatic Nadal. In the end, in his 100th career final, Nadal won his 68th career singles title.
There was a time when Nadal owned this part of the season. He’d come in from the American hard courts and lord over Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Madrid and Rome altogether, before lording over the French Open in Paris. But it’s been a while since he has been able to do that. Djokovic has won everything but the French Open during these years, and perhaps this is the year he could go on and win it. But by losing in Monte Carlo and not even making it to the quarters, Djokovic may have created – or recreated – a monster. A familiar red monster named Rafael Nadal, who will slowly feed off this confidence heading into his favorite tournament of the year.
Many will say that he won this because Djokovic wasn’t around. But Federer used to win a lot of tournaments back in the day because Nadal used to occasionally lose to lesser-ranked players early on. That didn’t mean Federer didn’t deserve to win it – he was perhaps lucky to get the easier route, but in tennis you make your own luck. Nadal just did that, and will be happy to know that he owns a title – his 12th consecutive season in which he has won something on clay – while heading into the business end of the season that will include the French Open, Wimbledon and The Olympics followed by the US Open.