It’s the same story almost every year – the clay season comes around and it immediately becomes The Rafael Nadal Show.
Nadal is just one month shy of his 32nd birthday, and he’s just as dominant on the surface as he was when he was 19.
He enters Madrid carrying a 19-match winning streak on the red dirt, and having won his last 46 consecutive sets on the surface.
For his rivals hoping to share the spoils, it must be frustrating knowing how limited their chances become when the season passes through European clay.
They also know that in order to win a clay-court title this stretch, they will more than likely have to defeat Nadal in order to pull it off.
Here’s what some of his biggest rivals said about Nadal’s clay-court reign.
Juan Martin del Potro (world No. 6)
Yes. But first you have to win a lot of matches before a Rafa match. But Rafa or Roger (Federer) are the favorites in all tournaments. We already know how it works. When we move to grass, Roger will be the favorite to win all the tournaments on grass. We already know that. I think Rafa is playing so good, but other guys have chances to beat him. We already made it in the past, so we can repeat this year. But, of course, Rafa has everything to keep winning. We just do what we can against him.
If Rafa keeps winning, I think it’s normal. But if we do good results playing against him, could be a surprise. We are looking forward to surprise him.
Dominic Thiem (world No. 7)
(Beating Rafa on clay) It’s one of the most difficult things in sport to do that, but on a good day, for some players I think it’s possible. Especially here in Madrid and in Rome, I think the chances are the highest. Because out of all the clay-court tournaments, I think here and in Rome it’s the most difficult for him. Still of course he’s playing amazing also in these tournaments but for the other players it’s a bit easier because it’s faster and a little bit higher bounce and everything.
Grigor Dimitrov (world No. 4)
For me personally that pushes me to do better and to work on the things I feel I can do better. It’s nice to have such a measuring cup (stick) so to speak, which is arguably the greatest player out there on clay, not arguably, he’s the greatest for me on clay. And just the way he plays, in a way you know how the ball is going to be, where it’s going to come and yet there’s not much you can do, but this is something that I enjoy a lot.
I love practicing against him, I love playing matches. I think it’s great to have a reference in a way, a reference like that to improve yourself. And yet you go after practice and you always try to see what else I could have done better, this shot wasn’t good enough, what can I do better? That itself pushes you to do better.
You have to try to exploit his weaknesses. He still has weaknesses and I think you can find them but the problem is sustaining that for whatever time during the match or best-of-five sets, it’s a whole other conversation.
“Even though I’m not in my best shape, I like to know that next to my name is ‘we never know’, so we never know,” Monfils said after his battling 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 win over qualifier Nikoloz Basilashvili that ended a little before midnight on Monday.
“It’s always tough obviously to play Rafa on clay courts, especially this year, he hasn’t lost a set on clay courts. It’s going to be a big challenge on Wednesday. I’m not in my best shape, that’s a shame a little bit. I just wish I will offer a great match. And when you step on the court you still have the belief that you can win, that’s the beauty of the sport.”
Monfils made a return to action last week in Munich, after being sidelined for seven weeks with a back problem he picked up in Indian Wells in March.
He lost his opener to Mirza Basic in Munich but avoided a similar fate against Georgia’s Basilashvili on Monday night.
“I escaped but it was very close,” said the 41st-ranked Monfils.
“I think I’m getting there slowly,” he said of his physical shape.
“I can see the way I’m moving, I’m a bit slower. My recovery between points, long points especially, it’s a bit tougher. The choice, when I’m out of breath a little bit, my choice, a lot of drop shots today because I didn’t want to play so many points.
“I think I know when I’m in shape I’m not making that selection of shots so definitely no drop shots on Wednesday, not that much. Some more shots that I have to pull out, even if I’m tired, maybe it will help to find a better shape.”
Nadal leads Monfils 13-2 head-to-head and has won his last five straight matches against the Frenchman.
The Mallorcan is on a 19-match winning streak on clay, and has won his last 46 sets in a row on the surface. Monfils knows exactly what he’s up against.
“He’s a legend,” Monfils said of Nadal.
“We are lucky to have two legends (Nadal and Federer) and obviously he’s one of those two. It’s not even credit, it’s Rafa.
“I just admire what he’s doing and actually I feel blessed to have the honour to play against those guys and on Wednesday I will try to break that record (streak), that’s a good motivation too.”
While he’s won it five times already, Madrid is perhaps the clay tournament where Nadal can show some chinks in his armour, due to the altitude and faster conditions.
But a faster court is not necessarily a better thing for Monfils. It doesn’t help that he seemed to have hurt his Achilles’ towards the end of his match with Basilashvili on Monday.
“For sure I’ll try to be aggressive because every time you want to be aggressive against Rafa. But it’s not that easy to be aggressive against him,” explains Monfils.
“His ball, the way he’s moving you on the court, so definitely my mindset will be that I’ll try to be on top of him but it will never happen.
“It will be more a battle from the baseline. For sure I can hold a few games like that because I think I have a few games in the tank but if I go for a long match like that he will win very easily. I’m not yet in great shape to battle with him.”
The former world No. 6 has not defeated Nadal since Doha 2012. His best appearance at the Caja Magica was making the quarter-finals in 2010.
On his part, Nadal isn’t taking his stunning clay-court record for granted (he has won 92 per cent of his clay matches) and insists there are no guarantees.
“I don’t think that I am superior to the other players. Maybe some tournaments have been better than others, but that doesn’t guarantee that in the future I’m going to be better than my opponents,” said the top-ranked Nadal.
Rafael Nadal is frequently quizzed about football, particularly when he’s in Spain, being one of the most famous Madridistas on the planet.
An avid Real Madrid fan, Nadal turned some heads when he showed up at rival club Atletico Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano stadium last Thursday to watch Atleti face Arsenal in the Europa League semi-finals.
The Mallorcan was photographed during the match with an Atletico Madrid jersey draped around his neck, and was asked about it during his press conference on Monday at the Caja Magica in the Spanish capital.
“The other day I went to the Atletico stadium. It was beautiful. They have an amazing stadium. It was my first opportunity to go to that stadium,” Nadal explained in Spanish.
“At the end, well, there is a problem in the society that we have today, that to be a real supporter of one team, it seems that you have to be anti another team. I just support Real Madrid. It’s a team that I know.
“I have a lot of friends that are from Atletico. They are playing in a competition in Europe against an English team. I just went there to support Atletico Madrid. I went there. They invited me. I just wanted to enjoy the day, to see a great football match.
“They gave me one of their jerseys. The president gifted me with a jersey. At night it was a little bit chilly, a little bit cold, and I just used it as a scarf. That’s all.
“But it’s always the same stuff. There is maybe too much hypocrisy, or I would say you people in the media have to write too many things, so you have to explore some stupid things. That’s my point of view.”
I hope his fans heard his words because what he said about aficionados of rival clubs also applies to tennis fanatics. Many Nadal fans are vigorously anti Federer, and many Federer fans are vigorously anti Nadal. Maybe the Spaniard’s views can get his followers to lighten up a bit?
Nadal will begin his Madrid title defence on Wednesday against either Frenchman Gael Monfils or Georgian Nikoloz Basilashvili.
IN HER OWN WORLD
Elsewhere, Maria Sharapova was spotted in the corner of the players’ game room, reading a book a few hours before her opening round match on Sunday, with the ATP’s media hour taking place just a few feet away.
ATP/WTA combined tournaments are obviously busy and Madrid is no exception with something always happening on every inch of the Caja Magica.
Finding a place to relax ahead of a match can be a struggle but Sharapova was unfazed by the roundtable interviews taking place next to her while she sat on an arm chair reading in peace.
“I kind of zone out. I’m like, ‘You guys do what you got to do. I’m getting ready for a match. I have a book to read, more important things going on here’,” she said with a chuckle
“No, I think it’s important to kind of find your own space, especially as you’re focusing and getting ready to play. We all have our routines. It’s kind of what you know, what you do, what you’re comfortable with. It’s like, ‘Why change them because there’s a media hour?’
“No, I’m pretty used to, like, having a lot of – I’m good at having horse blinders on, just doing my thing, getting ready for what’s ahead of me, which is most of the time a tennis match.”
In case you’re wondering what book she was reading, it was Alan Watts’ The Wisdom of Insecurity.
After I asked Sharapova about what she was reading, the following exchange then happened between her and a journalist.
Sharapova: Well, I have two books. What was I reading yesterday? Oh, I was reading a book by Alan Watts. What is it called? Something ‘of Insecurity’.
Oh, my God, Alexander is going to kill me. I don’t know. I don’t have it with me. I can’t believe it. I’m freezing. But I’m reading Trevor Noah’s book and this one. It ends with something ‘Insecurity’.
Journalist: ‘The Wisdom of Insecurity’.
Sharapova: High five. Free chocolate. I don’t know what I think about it, but I’m in the middle of it. Did you like it?
Journalist: Haven’t read it.
Sharapova: How did you know about it?
Journalist: Google check.
Sharapova: The cheater. Wow! Actually the whole book is about being in the moment, like not being on your phone. So that was great timing. You still get chocolate for that.
The other book she’s reading is Trevor Noah’s.