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The Return of the King

After sealing his sixth straight title at the Monte Carlo Masters, Rafael Nadal collapsed to the clay in joy. For a man who has now won 37 titles in his illustrious career, this one was particularly important to him. It has been eleven long months since the last time the Spaniard lifted a trophy, having struggled with both his form and injuries in recent times. However, the manner of his victory shows that the King of Clay is back and fully intends to regain his title at Roland Garros next month.

The Masters Series is one step down from the Grand Slam events. A swathe of top players arrived in Monte Carlo, aiming to win the third Masters event of the year. Five of the world’s top 10 players were there – of the others, Nikolay Davydenko, Juan Martin Del Potro and Robin Soderling all withdrew through injury. Therefore, it was a strong field lining up to try to take Nadal’s crown. However, come Sunday afternoon, Rafa stood victorious, having lost only 14 games in his 5 matches. Whilst comfortable victories were to be expected against his earlier opposition, it was the ease in which he dispatched David Ferrer, Juan Carlos Ferrero and Fernando Verdasco in successive rounds that will have his future opponents concerned. Verdasco has just moved back into the top 10 in the world and Nadal dispatched him in little over an hour for the loss of just one game.

In the past five years, Rafael Nadal has played 165 matches on clay. He has lost only 6 of these. The only men to have beaten him are Robin Soderling, Roger Federer (twice), Juan Carlos Ferrero, Igor Andreev and Gaston Gaudio. Andreev and Gaudio’s victories both came in early 2005, whilst Ferrero’s victory came when Nadal was struggling with blisters and barely able to move around the court. Roger Federer has beaten him in the Hamburg Masters in 2007 and the Madrid Masters last year, whilst it was Robin Soderling’s victory at the French Open last year that began the mini-slump for Nadal.

Following that defeat to Soderling, he underwent knee surgery, missing the opportunity to defend his Wimbledon title. He missed three months of the season, returning in mid-August at the Montreal Master Series tournament, where he lost at the quarter-final stage to Del Potro. Defeats to Novak Djokovic, Del Potro again, Marin Cilic and Nikolay Davydenko followed, before he lost all three of his matches in the end-of-season Masters Cup in London. He returned this year, but lost in the quarter-final stage of the Australian Open to Andy Murray before taking another two months out of the game. Semi-final defeats to Ivan Ljubicic and Andy Roddick followed on the American hard courts. But then, the Monte Carlo Masters came round and Nadal returned to his beloved clay.

“I started to have problems in the knees here (last year in Monte Carlo),” Nadal said. “I had a little bit personal problems in that moment, and mentally wasn't at the top for me part of the year.” Despite any problems he was having, he had just surpassed Roger Federer as the number 1 in the world. However, surgery to cure tendonitis in his knees, combined with the divorce of his parents had a major impact on him both on and off the court. He lost weight, leading to a loss in the intimidation factor that came with the bulging muscles in his arms.

When he made his comeback in Montreal, he was clearly not fully fit. He had problems with putting adequate weight on his injured knee, particularly when planting it to play backhand shots, meaning he was unable to generate the power in these shots. He had to resort to playing sliced backhands, which combined with his inability to cover the court as he used to, led to a diminishing presence on the court.

Early in the Australian Open this year, he appeared to be back close to his best, but after struggling early on against Andy Murray, his knees led to him retiring early. Nerves seemed to strike when closing in on a title in Indian Wells. However, victory in Monte Carlo will give him the belief that he needs to regain his top form. It is important to bear in mind that Roger Federer was not in this tournament. Furthermore, this was not a Grand Slam. However, he has the confidence again to believe that he can regain his Roland Garros crown.

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