The resurgence of Rafael Nadal and a magical week in Monte Carlo

Anyone who has ever loved tennis knows the sport possesses a singular quality, a uniquely combative nature which resonates across much of the globe.

This is a violent sport. It’s anything but the longstanding and laughably empty stereotypical image of a “sissy” or “genteel” activity. Yet, the competitors don’t suffer black eyes, fractured jaws, or concussions in the course of battle.

Tennis is at once ferocious and artful. It can be an endurance test or a painting class, but even when it leans toward one side of the spectrum, the other element is still needed to a certain extent. The endurance man (or woman) has to wave the magic wand at least a few times to prevail. Similarly, the gifted shotmaker has to find some inner steel in moments of crisis or challenge (or both).

All sports can and do (and will continue to) amaze us. Tennis isn’t unique in its capacity to astonish paying spectators, television viewers, or working commentators across the planet.

What is special about tennis is that in its combination of essence (how the actual sport is played) and structure (how its yearly competitions are arranged), it produces a chameleon-like ability to change appearance with great abruptness.

You might quickly say, “Well gee, Matt, golf does that more than tennis — look at the final nine holes of The Masters and how quickly everything changed.”

Fair point.

In an attempt to sharpen my presentation, let me say this: Tennis — somewhat akin to baseball — is more fully in tune with human existence, in that its dramas are divided into daily episodes. Golf is really more about the scramble on Sunday, and how final-round pressure either smothers or stabilizes the leading contenders. Tennis is more about surviving one day’s drama so that you can get to the next one.

In golf, that “next day” isn’t as defined, the opposition not as clearly marked in many cases. In baseball, there’s always a next day until the very end of September or an elimination game in October.

In tennis, you don’t get a next day if you’re not good enough today, in the present moment.

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It’s actually rather peculiar, in a sense, that Americans don’t love tennis nearly as much as they once did (in the late 1970s and early 1980s). Tennis, you see, is the sport in which the full season — save for the year-end championships on both tours — consists of bracketed tournaments. The other sports (most of them, anyway) have bracketed postseason tournaments, but tennis’s regular season — the daily life of the sport — is a bracketed one.

This should create a popular attraction, but apparently, bracketed tournaments are only fun for most Americans when the participants are 19-year-old basketballers who play in front of mascots, cheerleaders and pep bands in gymnasiums and closed arenas.

At any rate, it’s Americans’ loss, and a distinct gain for anyone who has realized how precious a gift tennis is.

If you know and love this sport, you know just how quintessentially beautiful this past week of competition was in Monte Carlo, where the Masters 1000 tournament changed the tone and tenor of the season, the clay campaign in particular.

Tennis’s unique penchant for creating abrupt transformations and plot twists — within its familiar structure — uncorked one eye-opening occurrence after another. The sport offered so much food for thought that we all need a doggie bag for the leftovers we’re taking home from the banquet table.

Each of the following events is worth its own 1,500-word essay (at the very least), but in a one-shot review of the whole week at this tournament — which is a photographer’s paradise — we’ll have to let the pictures say thousands of words:

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Gael Monfils went the distance, taking a set off Nadal in the final against the run of play. At age 29, Stan Wawrinka finally put the pieces of his career together. Monfils could be on the path to the same achievement. If he can win a first major or at least bag a first Masters title plus some appearances in major finals, the hearts of tennis fans will be full, because tennis fans LOVE Monfils when he’s at his best. The energy, the passion, the flair, the exuberance — they brighten the landscape.

Monfils left Monte Carlo with hope. Fans never want this version of Monfils to leave the scene. Maybe this time, he’ll stay.

What other pictures did we see this past week?

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The fundamental point made above — about how quickly tennis can and does change within its episodic tournament-based structure — exploded into brilliant color in Monte Carlo, allowing for the memorable tapestry of events which refreshed the 2016 season.

Wednesday, the world was a Roger Federer world. Novak Djokovic — tired after pulling off yet another Indian Wells-Miami double — finally lost before the finals of a Masters 1000 tournament. Nole hadn’t done so since 2014 in Shanghai. His loss only magnified the incredible run he’s put together. More precisely and instructively, Djokovic’s loss reminded tennis fans that his dominance has been anything but automatic: Any day carries the possibility of a wrong turn or a plot twist. Djokovic has fought off “possibility” to forge his own remarkable and transcendent reality for a year and a half, and that point should grow in magnitude after this week, as opposed to being seen in a more diminished light.

At any rate, after Wednesday’s events, Federer had what seemed to be a clear path to the final in his first tournament since the Australian Open and the knee injury which followed it.

On Thursday, Federer might have been watching Benoit Paire take a set-and-a-break-lead over Andy Murray. Another early loss by Murray would have aided Federer’s quest to retake the No. 2 spot in the rankings. Everything was coming up Federer in Monte Carlo.

Then came the rapid-fire changes which gave this tournament a complete 180.

Murray came back from the edge of death (multiple times) to oust Paire in three sets. Murray was able to win on a day when he didn’t play well, and when elite athletes pull off that feat, they’re generally sharper and more engaged the next day. That’s what happened for Murray against an injured Milos Raonic (poor lad), and as a result, Murray lasted longer in this tournament than Federer did.

That’s right — Federer’s outlook was so bright on Thursday, but 24 hours later, it had turned to dust, as the Swiss once again ended a Monte Carlo campaign without a trophy. Encountering the reality of layoff-induced rust, Federer’s forehand didn’t deliver the consistency required by a flinty and resolute Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Federer fell on the short side of a 7-5 third set. Murray — on the verge of losing ground to Federer in the rankings chase — flipped the script.

What a difference a day makes in tennis.

Murray would be involved in another twist of the tale, but that tale was much bigger than him.

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The 2016 clay season felt like the last stand for Rafael Nadal Parera.

Emphasize the word felt… for it was just a feeling, not a mathematical certainty.

It is easy to stand here today and consider Nadal’s win in Monte Carlo — his ninth — a fairly routine occurrence, but that’s revisionist history. Nadal is always a competitor to be respected, especially on clay, but there were no guarantees heading into this tournament that Nadal would make the final, let alone win it.

Even if Novak Djokovic had reached the final from the other half of the draw, Nadal had a tough road to merely get to Sunday: rising star Dominic Thiem, reigning French Open champion Stan Wawrinka, and Murray in Saturday’s semifinals.

Nadal’s game showed signs of recovering at Indian Wells, where he made the semis, but even then, Nadal was fortunate to have escaped Alexander Zverev. When Rafa bowed out of Miami in the early rounds, Monte Carlo became an ever-more-crucial pivot point for his career and his season. About to turn 30 with many miles on the odometer, Nadal can’t count on being as vital a force at age 33 or 34, as Federer has been. He needs to maximize these next three seasons, and after a largely empty 2015 in which he didn’t win a Masters title and never reached so much as a single major semifinal, the arrival of the clay season gave him his best chance at a re-entry point onto the big stage in men’s tennis.

Leave it to a legendary champion to make the most of this crucial opportunity.

As said above, there was nothing automatic about this run. Nadal had to save 15 break points in the first set alone (!) against Thiem. That set could become, in time, the most important set of this advanced stage of his career, a point in time when the legs aren’t as young as they once were, and the serve is not as much of a weapon as it once was.

One thing Nadal never has to worry about — the thing which will never diminish in his approach to tennis — is his fight. Returning to this larger theme of the week in Monte Carlo, in which everything abruptly changed on a daily basis, Nadal used his signature trait to turn around Saturday’s semifinal against Murray.

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If Murray was just about to leave Monte Carlo on Thursday — with Benoit Paire holding the proverbial knife to his throat — he was just about to drive the dagger through Nadal’s heart on Saturday. He cruised through a 6-2 first set in which he vaporized one crosscourt backhand after another. Murray looked the part of the two-time major champion he is, and he raised questions about why he hasn’t won more in his career.

Nadal didn’t play poorly in that first set; he simply watched his opponent reach a higher place. Nadal needed some help from Murray in that second set, and he got it, but in order for Murray to come down from the mountain in Monte Carlo, Nadal had to make him work and stay in the ring long enough for the Scotsman to feel the weight of his opponent’s presence.

If Rafael Nadal Parera is able to do anything — anything at all, when everything else about him might be crumbling — it is that.

The Mallorcan master owns a 28th Masters championship precisely because he didn’t allow any opponent to overwhelm him for more than a little while. He was always able to turn the tides on the waterfront of Monte Carlo, verily the most picturesque location for any tennis tournament on planet Earth.

Murray began to leak errors at the start of the second set, and while Nadal was not devastating in the first half of that set, he established himself as the steadier player, weeding out the occasional unforced error which had made Murray’s first-set journey just a little more comfortable. Nadal’s reduction in mistakes didn’t overwhelm Murray, but the Spaniard’s increased efficiency certainly planted the statement in Murray’s brain: I’m going to have to work really, really hard to finish this off. It’s the seed of doubt Nadal has successfully planted into every non-Djokovic opponent a majority of the time over the years. That seed bore fruit for the No. 5 seed in the latter half of the second set, as Nadal became the stronger player. In the third set, Murray’s tank was empty, and suddenly — after no Masters titles since 2014 in Madrid — Nadal found himself in that very familiar and satisfying place once again:

His fight, his survival skills, his unmatched competitive qualities had taken him to a championship match in a clay-court event of considerable consequence. He took care of the job against Monfils, winning a 73-minute masterpiece of a first set even though his French foe played so admirably.

Nadal — outlasting Murray and Monfils in the final two matches, absorbing an opponent’s best punches and rope-a-doping his way to a position of pronounced physical superiority in the final set — had turned back the clock to 2014 and, frankly, all the years in which the greatest claycourter of all time had put all foes at his feet.

Rafael Nadal Parera authored another feat of clay. It’s the same as it always was…

… except for the fact that it wasn’t.

Nadal, almost 30 and so clearly nervous at the end of the second set against Monfils, wanted this title so much that his nerves got the better of him in that second stanza. Nadal is now entering the advanced stage of a career, when the mind knows too much, not too little. Roger Federer has displayed this same tendency, which is part of the life of the older athlete. Federer and Nadal have proved themselves over and over again. They’ve withstood more pressure than hundreds of competitors over more than a decade. They know how to deal with situations.

Yet, the older athlete’s mind has more memories to contend with, more sentimentality to rebel against and push out of one’s inner thoughts. The older athlete feels the tug of emotions more than the in-prime athlete does. Federer and Nadal have both tasted their own blood, their own tennis mortality, in ways which simply didn’t exist or occur to them in their mid-20s. This is why the prospect of winning a prestigious tournament after a miserable year — Federer’s empty 2013 or Nadal’s unbearable 2015 — brings about nerves which ordinarily wouldn’t have existed six years before.

You could see this in Nadal on Sunday against Monfils, when routine errors prevented this match from ending in two sets. Nadal had to deal with one more obstacle in that third set, but his combination of resilience and focus — finely honed at a level rarely matched in the history of tennis — saw him through to the finish line.

A celebration on clay. A trophy bite. A big smile in Monte Carlo.

Things we used to take for granted with Rafa — but had disappeared for a few years at Masters or majors — once again entered our world.

*

And so, we’re left with this reality after Monte Carlo’s unforgettable week:

Novak Djokovic has won the hardcourt major of the young season, and the two hardcourt Masters events.

Rafael Nadal has won the first clay Masters event of the season.

Two or more years ago, we would have called this pedestrian, normal business.

This year, it’s anything but — on both sides, not just one.

Two years ago, who would have imagined how much Djokovic would dominate men’s tennis? The Serbian’s dominance in 2015 and 2016 has been captivating and enthralling. As a writer, I have relished the chance to write about such dominance, even if the exercise has been repetitive. I — like fellow sportswriters — have had to find 37 different ways of saying the same thing over the past 18 months or so: Djokovic is unreal.

Now, Nadal’s dramatic return to prominence provides a fresh story, a story of an older champion — punched in the mouth for nearly two full years — wiping the blood away from his mouth and finding a way to punch back. As a sportswriter, I get to write something new, but that’s not the only reason why this story excites me.

It stirs me as a fellow human being — an observer of human activity and the drama of life — to see a proud champion respond to adversity in this way. It’s not favoritism toward a player, but admiration toward the resilience of the human spirit, embodied in one of tennis’s most revered and remarkable performers.

It is so great that tennis can feature two kinds of champions in 2016 and make them equally large for substantially different reasons.

Novak Djokovic has made championships FEEL inevitable… even when they aren’t.

Rafael Nadal, in a week when Djokovic suffered a shocking loss (the very kind of loss which affirms how “evitable” these championships are), reminded all of us of his own history, when HIS clay-court championships carried with them an aura of inevitability. Yet, we know that this title in Monte Carlo — unlike the previous eight — didn’t come from the same place of expectation or knowledge.

Djokovic’s expected mastery and Nadal’s burst into the forefront — both are electrifying stories I feel privileged to write about as a tennis blogger. Two entirely different flavors of greatness — the in-prime champion curb-stomping the competition on hardcourts, the older champion finding a way to reach past recent failures to regain glory — both stir the soul.

Nadal’s feat, of course, came attached to a higher degree of surprise, so that’s why so many of us are buzzing today. Yet, Djokovic fans shouldn’t think that an entirely natural and organic element of open-mouthed wonderment¬†reflects a preference for this kind of result.

One should be able to say — without being tagged as biased or unobjective — that Rafael Nadal’s latest and greatest triumph was pretty damn cool to see…

… and that the past week in Monte Carlo so perfectly illustrated why tennis — the sport which can change so profoundly on a daily, episodic basis — is such a special part of our lives.

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.

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