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By Chris Oddo | @TheFanChild | Monday April 13, 2020

In 2003 Rafael Nadal sent the first of what would be two decades’ worth of shockwaves rippling through the grounds of the Monte-Carlo Country Club. The Spaniard’s first two victories at the event, including one over then reigning Roland Garros champion Albert Costa, would prove to be tiny tremors compared to the seismic triumphs that would become commonplace in the years to come.

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Nadal, the Quincy Jones of clay-court tennis, has been pumping out thrillers ever since.

In total the masterful Spaniard has won 71 of his 76 matches at Monte-Carlo, including an Open-Era record eight successive trophies from 2005 to 2012, plus another three straight titles from 2016 to 2018.

It’s a body of work fit for a king, and Nadal’s Monte-Carlo escapades represent just a sliver of his total clay court CV. And yet Monte-Carlo, the first stop on the annual Road to Roland Garros, will forever be considered a critical part of  the Nadal clay narrative. We can’t learn about the man or his dominance on the clay without first peering in at his Monte-Carlo triumphs. Roland Garros, the only clay Grand Slam, will always be the crown jewel of Nadal’s empire, but Monte-Carlo, due to its place at the start of the European clay-court swing and the manner in which it was embraced by Nadal from day one, will always be of immense importance.

As we take stock of Nadal’s achievements in the breathtaking environs often simply referred to as “the Principality,” we commence with the 16-year-old version of this now storied warrior; the long-haired, pirate-panted Tasmanian Devil with a Babolat stick that didn’t just take tennis on clay to the next level, he elevated the art form to an unfathomable height.

It’s all old news these days, of course. Even the most casual of sports fans can tell you that Nadal, now a 12-time Roland Garros champion and owner of 59 titles on his favorite surface, is the King of Clay, but in 2003 how could we have known that this humble, hard-charging bull of a kid was embarking on a path that would leave him alone on the top of the mountain a decade and a half later?

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Pull out your binoculars and you can see Nadal up on that peak of crushed red brick, surrounded by a plethora of trophies while he bites into another; high in the rarefied air where there are no footprints, save his own.

He was untouchable on clay from an early age, and remains so today--but how?

Nadal built an unapproachable fortress of indefatigability that was aided and abetted by the belief that his opponents were ever dangerous usurpers, hell-bent on laying waste to his empire. That wariness guided Nadal, and even today it keeps him on top of the mountain. He refused to rest on his laurels or take a single victory for granted. Instead he yearned to prove himself obsessively, to honor the sport and its history as well as the contributions of his family and his tough but fair Uncle Toni, who helped instill the heart of a lion in Nadal as he shaped the youngsters evolving game and mentality.

Nadal’s game was built at sea level in Mallorca, under the strict tutelage of Toni, but it was truly unleashed on the world in grand fashion at the pristine Monte-Carlo Country Club in 2003 when the Spaniard made his first king-sized splash in an ATP crowded with great (but not THAT great) clay courters like Guillermo Coria, Carlos Moya, Gaston Gaudio, Albert Costa and Gustavo Kuerten. By beating Costa in 2003, Nadal became the first 16-year-old to break into the world's top 100 since Michael Chang in 1988.

Was the smart money already on him then? Surely some of it was, but not even Nadal’s firmest backers could have envisioned what would take place over the next decade and a half.

After winning two matches in Monte-Carlo, the 16-year-old was admittedly worn out from the experience and fell to Guillermo Coria in straight sets in the round of 16. Coria, just 21 years of age and on his way to his own respectable level of stardom, was impressed by the young lad he had just beaten. “I believe he's a great player,” Coria told the media after the match. “He played really great here. I believe that if he keeps on going like this week, he can become a great champion.”

Carlos Moya, a fellow Mallorcan and longtime mentor and friend of Nadal’s (now his faithful coach), remarked similarly on Nadal’s first steps at the professional level. “I didn't think he could beat Albert [Costa],” he said. “I thought it was gonna be a close match, but Albert is playing well, very solid, with more experience. I thought that he would be able to beat him. But he's impressing me every day, Rafael. I know him since he was 10 years old. But day after day he keeps impressing me.”

That last sentence was one we would would end up hearing endlessly, not just from Moya but by everybody who ever had to deal with Nadal on a clay court; everybody who bore witness as Nadal hit the highest possible level of clay-court tennis and kept his game red-lined for an improbably long stretch after that.

“Day after day he keeps impressing…”

Two years later, Nadal would turn the table on Coria by putting in a smothering four-set win over the Argentine in the final. What followed would be an unmitigated run of dominance in Monte-Carlo the likes of which tennis had never seen.

Nadal “impressed” in 46 consecutive matches at Monte-Carlo, reeling off a legendary eight-year title streak that took him from the first round of the 2005 event (6-3 6-2 over Gael Monfils) through the semis of the 2013 event (6-3 7-6 over Tsonga). Fifteen of those 46 wins were over Top 10 talent, and another four saw him knock off reigning World No.1s. When it came to facing Nadal at Monte-Carlo, no prisoners were taken. The relentlessness of Nadal’s tennis, its sheer pulsating physicality and the fact that it came not just in barely tolerable chunks, but limitless, menacing waves of mutilation, made him virtually impossible to defeat.

In the 2008 final the great Roger Federer, then No.1 in the World, won less than half his service points against Nadal. “I don't expect losses against Rafa at all,” a disappointed but resigned Federer said at the time. “You know, I mean, I try everything I can.”

That difficult loss would mark the third consecutive time Federer fell to Nadal in the final at Monte-Carlo. The Swiss, arguably one of the most ingenious tacticians ever to wrap his fingers around a racquet, always seemed to believe that he was taking strides in the right direction despite the defeats. In his heart he held out hope that he could one day solve the unsolvable riddle of Nadal’s clay game.

“I thought it was a good match,” Federer said after losing to Nadal in four sets in the 2006 final. “I enjoyed the battle against him, and sort of have the feeling it answers me a lot of questions, you know, I was asking myself prior to the clay court season. So this was a fantastic week for me.”

That’s how it is and how it has been ever since Nadal stretched his arms around the world of clay court tennis. “Fantastic” means taking a set off of Nadal at Monte-Carlo, even for an all-time great. This is how the shape-shifting Mallorcan introduced a new level of domination to tennis. One bludgeoning point after another, steady as the symbolic beads of perspiration that gather on the bridge of Nadal’s nose before falling in the clay.

And this is how the Spaniard helped elevate the domination of the Big Three as an entity. Facing Nadal may have been painful for Federer, especially on the clay, but one can certainly see how much it helped him. Federer even knew, and appreciated, what Nadal’s torturous game could do for him back in 2006.

“So I think I'm actually going to improve a lot by playing more against him, and I already feel like I have since he's been around, you know,” he said. “Like I said, the more I think I play him, the more also I'll figure out his game and the easier it's going to get for me. Maybe I'm too optimistic, but I really believe it.”

The same can be said for Novak Djokovic, the player who has made the greatest strides against Nadal on clay, and the man who ended Nadal’s 46-match winning streak in the principality in the 2013 final.

But in the end there have always been those that chase Nadal on the clay, but find the Sisyphean task too difficult to achieve with even spotty regularity. They come crashing down the mountain, rocks tumbling past them, as Nadal stands on higher ground and sinks his teeth into his latest piece of hardware.

When we see this Nadal, ridiculously accomplished and teary-eyed after yet another clay-court milestone, we should always remember the Nadal that got his feet wet at Monte-Carlo in 2003. He would miss the event the next year with an ankle injury but when he visited Monte-Carlo next in 2005 a period of improbable domination—in Monte-Carlo and at every other clay venue— would begin without any further delay.


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