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Nadal Gets Must-Win Boost in Monte Carlo

Rival Joker Packed it in early

April 22, 2012 | 05:13 PM

It was the match-up of rivals everyone expected but it didn't end up being their usual brand of hi-test tennis. Instead, it was a 6-3, 6-1 drubbing of the kind Rafa normally dishes out in an early round when he's in peak form. It took only 1:18, half the time of their usual clay battles, and was much less competitive than Rafa's semis with Simon (Joker won only 37% of the points, and 20% of return points - about half his average haul last year; Simon won 47%).

Their only other encounter at Monte Carlo, in the '09 final, went 3 and 1 to Nadal, but Joker won a 6-2 second set to make it a match. This time, after Joker coughed up error after error and fell behind a set, there was hope that he could again push the re-start button. After all, he'd lost two other first sets this week with similarly uninspired tennis, and come back each time. But a few minutes later he was down two breaks in the 2nd set when only his What the Hell tactics could jump start his dead wheels and irritate the Spaniard. Instead, the only thing he did that bothered Rafa was to give up on a point: after barely staying on his feet while making a get and throwing up a weak lob, Joker stood still in the corner while Rafa put the smash away down the middle. The look he got from Nadal said it all: You Wuss. Rafa didn't like the appearance of even a point being gifted.

Rafa needed to beat Joker in this final, but the reality is that Joker was on his way to the Post Office early in this one. After four 1st serves and first strike forehands in an opening hold, his radar flipped off and he started missing lines with his forehand and then even with his backhand, making success pretty easy for Rafa. Joker lost serve in the 3rd game, and again at 3-5, and won only 2 points on return in the 1st set after the 2nd game. He didn't earn a single break point in the match, and while Rafa served harder than usual and maintained a 72% 1st serve average, the main virtue he needed was patience (his long suit). His remarkable defensive skills were rarely tested by more than a short pass-fail quiz (can you get this one? how about this? ok). For an encounter between the two best clay court players, the quality exchanges we've come to expect were too few and far between.

The good news for Joker: he kept his Monaco taxes low and gained 600 ranking points on the week, replenishing what he lost at Indian Wells by losing in the semis (to Isner). As the title defender Rafa didn't gain any points, but his win here makes the rest of the clay season much more interesting. The pressure will switch to Joker to defend the next two 1000 titles (where Rafa likes it), and then flip back to Rafa in Paris where he can expect it. If Joker was still in Rafa's head, it didn't show today. From here on, the clay season drama between these two couldn't look any better than this. Even if Roger and the rest don't insert themselves into the clay narrative this year, it will be a season to remember.

Rafa doesn't like playing in Madrid's altitude and is very unhappy with what has been done to the surface this year (using a new, bluish clay), so if he loses there, it will make Rome all the more interesting leading up to Paris. Perhaps he'll bail out on Madrid after defending Barcelona this week (a 500), which is for him what Monte Carlo is for Joker: an event he can't decline to play (Joker practices at the Monte Carlo Country Club in his adopted home land, and Rafa's virtually a citizen in Barcelona, where his favorite football club plays).

The Spaniard will be joined this week in Barcelona by last year's finalist Ferrer, who's ranking will drop another notch to #7 this week (behind Berdych), and Murray, who's anxious to kick-start his clay season after losing to Berdych in Monte Carlo. Joker, Roger, Tsonga and others will rest.

Stay tuned...


Monte Carlo Final 4.22.12

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