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By Richard Pagliaro | Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Dancing across the red clay he’s dominated, Rafael Nadal threw a fierce uppercut and a triumphant shout.

The defending champion’s exuberant reaction to a grinding 6-0, 5-7, 6-3, victory over Kyle Edmund spoke volumes about the most taxing Monte-Carlo opener of his career.

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Contesting his 400th career clay-court match, Nadal dropped a set for the first time in 14 Monte Carlo openers, withstood a fusillade of forehands from a dangerous opponent and late-match flight of a persistent pigeon, who playfully tested the patience of players—and ball kids—hopping around the court during tense times of final games.

Through it all, Nadal kept his eyes riveted on the ball reeling off three games in a row to close an adventurous two hour, 18-minute triumph. Afterward, Nadal went right to the practice court to work out the kinks after his first clay-court match of the season.

"Today what I feel is not about confidence, it is the chance I have to play tomorrow," Nadal said. "I saved a tough match against a very good player and tomorrow I have a very tough match."

The nine-time Monte Carlo champion will face his pre-tournament practice partner, Alexander Zverev, for a quarterfinal spot.

The 14th-seeded Zverev flogged Feliciano Lopez, 6-0, 6-4, in 59 minutes.

Consider Zverev has dropped just seven games in two tournament wins and you can understand why Nadal wanted to sharpen his strokes for tomorrow.

The 20-year-old Zverev has battled Nadal to the brink before. Zverev held a match point before bowing to Nadal at Indian Wells last year and pushed the 14-time Grand Slam champion to five sets before succumbing in the Australian Open third round last January.

In today’s topsy-turvy match, Nadal dispensed the 10th bagel set of his Monte Carlo career only to see Edmund torch jolting forehands. The lanky Briton blasted more than twice as many forehand winners—29 to 12—pushing the world No. 7 to the limit and declaring himself a legitimate clay-court player in his first career dirt duel with a Top 10 foe.

Dictating play by dipping his topspin forehand deep into the court, Nadal dispensed ruthless combinations from all angles in a clean start.

Edmund hit aggressive shots and was willing to take his cracks. The problem for the Brit was Nadal forced him to produce a series of quality shots repeatedly as points progressed.

Belting a clean topspin forehand down the line, Nadal marched through a strong hold at 15 for 4-0.

Striking with conviction and battering Edmund behind the baseline, Nadal scored his third straight break for a commanding 5-0 lead after just 23 minutes of play.

Though he served only 40 percent in the first set, it didn’t matter. The left-handed Spaniard won 12 of 15 points played on his serve in the set, while Edmund managed to win just four of 14 first-serve points.

Once Nadal made Edmund move laterally, he dispensed baseline pain. When the 45th-ranked Briton sailed a forehand, Nadal sealed a shutout set in 28 minutes.

The crowd was roused to a sympathetic cheer when Edmund held for the first time halting a six-game slide to start the second set. Edmund was eager for more than moral victories.

Crunching crosscourt forehands to test his opponent’s two-hander, Nadal grinded through an eight-minute game rattling successive errors to batter out the break for 2-1.

Completely out of nowhere, Nadal lost the plot in the next game nudging a volley into net to face double break point. Then came a sudden rush of nerves as he slapped his second double fault into net capping his sloppiest game of the match to give back the break.

Timing Nadal’s topspin better, Edmund started stepping in and connecting on big strikes.

When Edmund has time to set his feet and get his body behind the ball, he can unload booming forehands. Launching a series of damaging forehands, the 22-year-old Brit blasted through his most commanding hold for 3-2.

Drawing his opponent forward with the dropper, Nadal paid the price as Edmund chased it down and pushed a forehand inside the sideline for triple break point. A body serve followed by a slashing ace brought Nadal to 30-40, but he played a bit defensively on the third break point. Edmund hammered a forehand down the line drawing a stretched, floated reply breaking for the second straight time.

Down 0-30 in the seventh game, Edmund blistered successive forehands down opposite sidelines then followed with a brilliant stab volley winner. Attacking with more frequency, Edmund had a pair of game points for a 5-2 lead, but could not finish. When he whacked a mid-court backhand out, Nadal broke back for 3-4 with a shout.

Working through a tricky test at deuce, Nadal snaked a few timely forehands down the line for 4-all.

Drilling a pair of diagonal forehand winners, Edmund powered through a strong hold with his 16th forehand winner, doubling Nadal’s output off that wing for 6-5.

The combination of Edmund cranking up the volume of his forehand Nadal dropping back into more defensive positions doomed the defending champion in the 12th game.

Down 15-30, Nadal carved out a forehand drop shot then sent a backhand lob long to face set point after 92 minutes.

A timid serve put Nadal in trouble. Edmund torched a forehand return, attacked behind a backhand down the line drawing a shanked reply to even the match exhibiting strong self-belief and biting power from his electric forehand.

Increasingly, Nadal was resorting to the drop shot to displace Edmund. It wasn’t working. Edmund ran down another dropper holding at 15 to open the final set.

Grunting louder while advancing behind a forehand, Nadal was rebuffed as a sliding Edmund swept a forehand pass for break point. Nadal denied it when Edmund put a backhand into net, eventually holding for 2-2.

Uncle Toni Nadal rose from his seat as his nephew gained triple break point in the fifth game. On the second break point, Edmund pasted another ball into net as Nadal scored his sixth break of the day.

The grit and decisiveness Edmund showed against the King of Clay was admirable. Each time he absorbed body blows, he came back swinging. A crackling diagonal forehand followed by a dagger down the line earned Edmund the break back at love for 3-all.

Putting his head down, Nadal got back to work. A stretched forehand return coaxed an error for double break point and when Edmund laced a drive into the middle of the net, Nadal had the third straight break for 4-3.

Cracking a crosscourt forehand, Nadal drew an error for match point. One final error ended a physical test as Nadal raised his 2017 record to 20-5, while improving to 59-4 in Monte Carlo.


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