After one of the flattest months in the history of the ATP tour, world No 1 Rafael Nadal made a welcome return to the stage in Monte Carlo on Sunday, and immediately livened things up with a sly dig at his old rival Roger Federer.
Asked about Federer’s decision not to contest a single clay-court event for the second straight season, Nadal grinned broadly. “He says he will love to play against me again in best-of-five sets on clay,” came the reply. “He said that a couple of days ago – and I thought he would play Roland Garros. Then a few days later he says he will not play in one event, so there’s a little bit of controversy with that.”
Nadal did not go into further detail, but clearly he feels that Federer has chickened out. Over the past 15 months, Federer has reshaped the story of their 14-year rivalry by winning four straight meetings, all on hard courts. Were they to play on clay, though, Nadal would be heavily favoured to extend his overall advantage, which now stands at 23 wins from 38 matches.
Red clay is the blood that runs through Nadal’s veins. For the past decade and more, the eight weeks that run from the start of Monte Carlo to the end of the French Open have been his property. Others might nip in and pick up the odd title – even a slam, in the case of Novak Djokovic (2016), Stan Wawrinka (2015) and Federer himself (2009). But they always feel like crumbs stolen from the giant’s table.
Now Nadal is building up for another crimson-stained campaign, probably starting on Wednesday when he faces either Aljaz Bedene or Mirza Basic here in the second round. “I feel good,” he said during a media appointment at one of Monte Carlo’s many terrace restaurants. “I’m practising well, I am playing with the right intensity I think.” Underneath the high-class linen, one suspected he might have been pawing at the ground.
Admittedly, Nadal’s fitness record has been dreadful of late. He has failed to complete the past three tournaments he has entered – a run dating back to November’s Paris Masters – and did not even bother turning up for Indian Wells or Miami.
Yet some would argue that Nadal’s most recent niggle – the recurrence of a hip injury which he announced on Feb 27, a couple of days before his first match in Acapulco – might have been exaggerated. The sceptics suggest that Nadal has effectively been playing the same game as Federer, only saving himself for the clay instead of the grass.
The theory makes logical sense, even if it stands in the unprovable category. Either way, it feels like a terrible waste that we will have to wait until Wimbledon for the next theoretical chance of enjoying Federer-Nadal XXXIX. Even there, the prospects are remote, given that Nadal has not reached a quarter-final on Centre Court since 2011.
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Nadal’s return to Monte Carlo derives a little extra kudos from the fact that tennis’s most bankable names – Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray, Wawrinka, Williams, Sharapova – have failed to win a match between them on the tour since March 17. Nadal did, however, produce a pair of strong performances in Valencia just over a week ago to help Spain through a thrilling Davis Cup quarter-final against Germany.
In the absence of these legends, we have seen some unexpected first-time winners, including John Isner claiming his maiden Masters title in Miami.
But British No 1 Kyle Edmund fluffed his lines as he played his own first ATP final in Marrakesh.
Having swept through the first four rounds without dropping a set, Edmund managed only two service holds in his 6-2, 6-2 defeat at the hands of Pablo Andujar, the world No 598.
Andujar’s ranking is deceptive, though, as he had stood as high as No 32 before suffering a series of elbow injuries, and had previously won the Marrakesh title twice.
“It was not the result I wanted but, nevertheless, a good week for me,” said Edmund, who will climb to a new career high of No 23 when tomorrow’s chart is published.