Rafael Nadal continued his stunning performances on his beloved clay court surface as he easily dispatched Japan’s Kei Nishikori in a 6-3, 6-2 win at the Monte Carlo Masters.
The ten-time French Open winner went down an early break to Nishikori in the final and it started to look like Nishikori would pose the most serious test for Nadal, but the Spaniard broke back immediately and won five of the next six games to win the set. He then dropped just two more games in sealing the win, his eleventh Monte Carlo title–the 31st Masters title of his career–and capped off an incredible week by lifting the title without dropping a single set, something he has done five times in total at this event.
On paper Nadal was playing some seriously tough challengers this week, but he managed to beat the likes of Grigor Dimitrov, Dominic Thiem, and Nishikori without dropping a set and while losing no more than four games in a single set. Pure dominance from the Spaniard.
For the majority of the week in Monte Carlo, Nadal has been striking the forehand with real penetration through the court, which is usually a sign of where his confidence is at and his depth control of both of his groundstrokes has stopped his opponent of providing a real answer to his strokes. That is usually the biggest sign that Nadal is feeling good about his positioning on a clay court, a surface that he prioritises each and every season.
The win over Roland Garros semifinalist Dominic Thiem was perhaps the most impressive of the week and was the first real indication that we may see Nadal dominate the clay court events once more. Thiem was among the men that was considered as a player that could potentially defeat Nadal at Roland Garros, so once Nadal hammered the Austrian and dropped just two games, many more people took notice of something special taking place during the 2018 clay court swing.
So can Nadal realistically go unchallenged, and most importantly, unbeaten in the clay court swing? There are notable realistic challengers that are absent at this present time. Stan Wawrinka has been sidelined with a knee problem. Roger Federer has decided to skip the clay court swing, and former Roland Garros finalist Andy Murray is recovering after undergoing hip surgery, so the path is clear for Nadal to make a real attempt at going unbeaten for the whole of the swing. Whether he does it is another question.
Novak Djokovic has had his own injury troubles with an ongoing elbow problem and has beaten Nadal in three of their last four matches on the clay, so you could pose the question of whether Djokovic can upset the apple cart once he returns to some of his better form. Dominic Thiem also has two match-wins on the clay against the ten-time French Open champion.
I think Nadal will be very hard to beat over the best-of-5 format at the French Open, but one or two very good clay court challengers like the likes of Fabio Fognini have the tools and confidence on a clay court to beat the Spaniard in one of the events leading up to the second major of the season.
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