April 17, 2010

Just Like Old Times

It's nice to see things back to normal.

While there were, of course, some upsets along the way, the semifinals at the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters brought together four men with some of the best clay court results out there: top-seeded Novak Djokovic who has four titles on the surface including the 2008 Rome Masters, five-time and defending champRafael Nadal, who'd dropped only a handful of games in his first three matches here, Fernando Verdasco with titles in Umag and Valencia, and David Ferrer who has an impressive 162-81 record on the dirt. Three Spaniards and a Serb, all of whom were pretty familiar with each other.

Rafa and Ferrer took the court first, two men whose history runs deep. Not surprisingly, the Davis Cup teammates have met twelve times over the past six years, with Rafa holding a 9-3 edge. The last time Ferrer beat him was at the 2007 Tennis Masters Cup, but since then Nadal hadn't dropped even a set.

In Monte Carlo, I suppose there were reasons to believe the older Ferrer might have a chance -- he'd been stellar in his matches up to the semis, tested slightly by Ivan Ljubicic and Philipp Kohlschreiber, but otherwise looking on point. And if the injuries that have plagued Nadal over the past twelve months resurfaced, David could hold out hope. But this week, Rafa only dropped two games total in his first two matches. He traded a few breaks with Juan Carlos Ferrero in a rain-delayed quarter, but looked completely comfortable as he knocked off one player after another.

On Saturday Ferrer had a chance to break early, but instead crumbled in the first set. After just over half an hour, Nadal had broken his opponent twice and taken the first set. The second was a bit closer as three successive games that went to the receiver kept things fairly even. But finally Rafa pulled ahead and was able to save one more break opportunity to reach his forty-ninth career final and his second of the year.

Shortly after that match, Nole and Verdasco took the court with the Serb holding a 5-2 record over the sixth seed in Monaco. Djokovic, playing in his first Masters as a #1 seed, had lived up to his ranking all week, getting past Stanislas Wawrinka, last week's champ in Casablanca, and comeback story David Nalbandian fairly easily. Verdasco had been challenged a bit more, dropping sets to both Miami giant-killer Tomas Berdych and this week's Cinderella story Albert Montanes.

But it was a tumultuous couple of weeks for Novak -- he'd suffered a few upsets in Indian Wells and Miami, battled allergies, and had just announced that he'd split from coach Todd Martin. And Verdasco was able to take advantage of that. It had been four years since he was able to notch a "W" over last year's runner-up, but after a sloppy start to the match, he allowed the world #2 only four games -- the second fewest Novak has won in his career.

So that sets up the tenth career meeting for Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco, and their third since that epic semifinal in Australia in '09. And somewhat surprisingly, since that day last January, Fernando hasn't been able to take one set from Rafa. I have a feeling it will be hard for him to do so on Sunday either -- after all, Monte Carlo is Nadal's second home -- after Roland Garros. And as the former #1 tries to win his first title in almost a year, he's not only playing some of his best tennis, but he's looking hungrier than I've ever seen him.

And I for one can't wait to see him back in the winner's circle!

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