After the brief first half of the US hard court season, Spain's tennis players will this week feel back at home with red dust in their socks and the Mediterranean sun on their backs — and none more so than Rafa Nadal.
The reigning French Open champion targeted a return to full fitness in time for the Monte-Carlo Masters, with the medium-term goal of retaining the Coupe des Mousquetaires in Paris in June. Nadal already holds the record for French Open wins and in the meantime will take the court in Monte-Carlo as the clear favorite, despite being seeded three — it would have been five had Roger Federer and David Ferrer entered. Nadal has won the past eight tournaments in the principality — an ATP record held jointly with Guillermo Vilas, who bestrode his home tournament in Buenos Aires in the 1970s.
Nadal is just two clay tournament victories shy of Tomas Muster's 40 career wins, and will eventually surely catch Vilas, who won 45, although that will have to wait another year — even if the world number five hoovers up all the major red dust-covered trophies available, as he did last year. Of course, Nadal fell to compatriot Fernando Verdasco in the third round in Madrid on the contentious blue "clay," which players said behaved more like a hard court. The pledge by Spain's star draw to withdraw if the organizers insist on a repeat of the much-maligned experiment seems to have had its desired effect — red is set to make a return to Madrid next month.
The main challengers to Nadal's pre-eminence are world numbers one and two, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. The former appeared to have mastered Nadal's game in 2011, when he took the titles in Madrid and Rome at Nadal's expense during a seven-match-winning run. But Nadal turned the tables last season, defeating the Serbian in Monte-Carlo, Rome and at Roland Garros. Djokovic is still a doubt for Monte-Carlo with an ankle sprain.
Murray has yet to win a clay title in his career but has risen to world number two again and possesses a much more potent all-round game than in previous seasons. "The conditions are quite different here to what I practiced in [in Miami]. It feels quicker here and also the courts here are better quality. The movement has been the thing that I needed to improve on clay and I feel like I'm moving better this year," the Scot told the ATP website.
And then there is Federer. The Swiss maestro holds more records than a Virgin Megastore and although he doesn't care for the clay particularly, he is capable of winning on any surface. Federer has 10 clay titles from 22 finals and last year was the last man standing in Madrid's "dancing on ice" spectacular.