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What was that, you say? Rafael Nadal lost a set? It's true, but despite a hiccup in his Friday quarterfinal matchup versus Grigor Dimitrov, recent events indicate you may just as well fill in his name as the winner of Monte Carlo, as well as the next two Masters 1000 events, plus the French Open. 'S-Hertogenbosch? Who knows? Even I can only see so far into the future.
You can stick a Ferrer in here, a Tsonga there, a Djokovic somewhere else. But as of now, it looks like Nadal will be impossible to beat on clay.
On Thursday in Monte Carlo, the No. 4 seed and former Wimbledon finalist Tomas Berdych fell to Italy's Fabulous Fabio Fognini, 6-4, 6-2 (ouch!). Then No. 2 seed Andy Murray lost to Stanislas Wawrinka in under an hour, 6-1, 6-2 (yikes!). As a by-product, Murray fell back down to No. 3, behind -- guess who? -- Roger Federer.
Oh, and top-ranked and top-seeded Novak Djokovic struggled to post a comeback win against No. 14 seed Juan Monaco. Yes, the same Juan Monaco who's won exactly two tournament matches this year, both in Houston last week.
Meanwhile, Nadal has improved his Monte Carlo record to 47-1, including his triumph over Dimitrov. Friday was just the third set he's lost in the past six years at this event. He's won Monte Carlo eight times running but clearly feels he's just getting warmed up, even though he was seeded a lowly No. 5 because of all the time he took off last year to tend to his ailing knees. Anybody who thinks he's not going to win his ninth title in Monaco raise your hand.
Nadal's record in Monte Carlo is amazing, given that it's the first clay-court event of the European tour and everyone is just working into his clay-court mojo. As the results of his rivals this week (and in recent years) amply demonstrate, this picturesque seaside tournament is a warm-up event. Nobody feels an urgency to run the table in Monte Carlo, not with the Madrid and Rome Masters on the horizon, followed by the World Championships on clay at Roland Garros.
I don't even believe that Nadal feels an urgency to win in Monaco; he just can't help himself.
"I cannot say I'm the biggest favorite to win here again," the Spaniard told reporters at the start of the event. When they stopped laughing, they dutifully jotted down the quote.
Nadal added, "This is not an easy event to win. I don't want to lose perspective, but I don't want to lose, either."
Hey, Rafa. I've got news for you: Don't worry about losing the "perspective." You can win this thing playing right-handed, with Federer tied to your left leg.
That nobody has stepped up to push Rafa in even one set, while the men ranked above him (Djokovic and Murray) have struggled or lost, is a bit disappointing for anyone who was hoping for a competitive tournament.
Granted, a lot can change in the next few weeks as players find their sea legs. Murray is trying to figure out the clay game -- and dedicated to mastering it. Good for him, but the situation just illustrates the width of the gap between Murray and Nadal.
Djokovic rolled an ankle in Davis Cup (his most recent event), and at times in his match with Monaco he looked hobbled and uncomfortable. The last time I checked, ankles don't get better from the abuse inflicted on them in typical tennis matches. And Djokovic may well be harming his chances in the more important tournaments to come just by playing in Monaco. (My own theory is that he feels obliged to play in Monte Carlo, as the tax-dodge principality allowed him to establish residence there).
That leaves only one Grand Slam champion standing in Rafa's way until the tour moves to grass in mid-June -- Federer. But he's 31 now, out of action until Madrid, and Nadal is kryptonite to him on clay.
Besides, Federer may be in no shape to challenge anyone after being tied to Nadal's leg and getting dragged around as Nadal powers to the title Sunday.