What does it say about Rafael Nadal's dominance on clay that he brought, at best, his B- game to Monte Carlo and still won his seventh straight title at the event? That Andy Murray taking him to three sets in their semifinal was hailed as a stupendous return to form for the Scotsman, even though he lost the final set 6-1? That in Sunday's final, David Ferrer was unable to get closer than 6-4, 7-5 despite the fact that Ferrer played well and Nadal was as vulnerable on the surface as he has been in two years?
Even when he's far from his best, Rafa is nearly impossible to beat on his favored surface.
The world No. 1, who extended his clay court win streak to 37 with the victory over his countryman, looked uncharacteristically fallible on the final two days in Monte Carlo. Easy forehands sailed long, second serves were netted, service games couldn't be put away and shots that may have been winners one year ago were returned with a flick of the wrist by opponents. The victories were there for the taking by Murray and Ferrer.
Anybody else plays like Nadal did on the weekend and they go home a loser. But for him, a struggle on clay is only going up one break in a set, rather than two. It feels like he's losing when he's on serve. On the off-chance that he is broken, the feat is met with astonished gasps from the crowd. If it's on clay and Rafa isn't dominating, something feels off.
There's a book on how to beat Nadal during the springtime months. (It's a very short one.) Though it sounds counter-intuitive, opponents look to extend rallies and keep the point going rather than playing for winners, a decision which inevitably leads to a slew of unforced errors. Murray worked this strategy to perfection, playing lengthy points and staying in games that stretched as long as 18 minutes. All he has to show for it is the dreaded moral victory.
Ferrer broke Nadal late in the second set to even the match at 5-5 and had people thinking -- can he do it? -- if only for a minute. Rafa broke back the next game.
This Rafa is beatable on clay. Not in Paris, perhaps, but in Rome or Madrid, where the fatigue of the compact clay season and looming Grand Slam could lead to a upset in one of the ATP 1000 events. Rafa doesn't look like he's hellbent on keeping up the clay court winning streak, now at 37.
That's not to say he won't. As we saw in Monte Carlo, Rafa can be unbeatable on clay even he's not.