April 17, 2011

Lucky #7

There are not a lot of athletes, or any type of sports franchise for that matter, that can claim seven-year winning streaks at the highest level of play. But earlier today Rafael Nadal's historic run in Monte Carlo earned him a record seventh trophy at the Rolex Masters and kept him undefeated at the event since 2003.

This year's path to the finals was not without drama. After progressing easily though the early rounds, Nadal suffered a set's worth of distraction in the semis against Andy Murray. The pair traded breaks early in the match, but Rafa eventually got the lead before his level of play began to slump. His first serve percentage dropped and he missed several of the dramatic shots that usually come so easily for him. But the loss of the second set served to incite his drive and everything seemed to improve in the decider. Nadal rushed off to a 4-0 lead before finally closing out the match in three hours.

The unexpected struggle must have prepared Rafa well for the finals, where he met countryman David Ferrer playing only his second Masters championship match. Again the two traded service games early in the first set before Nadal took control and the lead, and after a similar start to the second set, he secured the decisive break late in the match to claim the title yet again.

Monte Carlo has been an important stepping stone for Rafa for years -- his first crown in 2005 set off a career that now includes nine Majors, nineteen Masters, Olympic gold and nearly two years ranked at the top spot in the sport. And while all the talk has centered around Novak Djokovic's success this year, this latest prize in Monaco reminds us all that Rafael Nadal is the only man to beat on clay. As we head into what's so often the most prolific part of his year, I expect to see no immediate signs of slowdown in his game.

And the way he's been playing, I wouldn't be surprised to see some much larger numbers become lucky for him as well.

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