April 21, 2012

The Year Was 2004...

It's hard to remember a time before Rafael Nadal was champion of the Monte Carlo Masters -- way back when, things were quite different.

In April 2004 then-clay court powerhouse Guillermo Coria had taken the title. Ranked #4 in the world at the time, the Argentine went on to the final in Hamburg and a runner-up trophy at Roland Garros, where unseeded Gaston Gaudio came back from two sets down to capture his first and only Grand Slam crown. Since then it's been all about Rafa.

It's been such a long time since we've thought of anyone else but Nadal as ace of this base. And so much has changed in the interim that things that were once commonplace are now even harder to imagine.

Eight years ago Illinois State Senator Barack Obama was just prepping his career-changing keynote address to the Democratic National Convention, Mitt Romney was in his second year as Massachusetts governor. John Edwards was in the running to be Vice President, Newt Gingrich was already on his third wife and at least his second affair. Al Franken was best-known as a writer for SNL, Sarah Palin as the former Mayor of Wasilla.

Tony Blair was still Prime Minister of Britain, Angela Merkel was not yet Chancellor of Germany, Nicolas Sarkozy was just France's finance minister -- not a supermodel's husband. Kim Jong-Il was alive. So was Osama Bin Laden. And Saddam Hussein.

Mark Zuckerberg was an unknown undergrad who had just launched theFacebook at Harvard, the only things that tweeted were birds -- and they were very seldom angry. Google wasn't yet a public company, and Apple's stock was trading under $28 a share.

Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers and Washington Mutual were still in business -- and making big bucks. The U.S. unemployment rate was just 5.6%, down from recent highs above a staggering 6%. No one outside Wall Street knew what a "subprime" loan was. Or had an opinion on Goldman Sachs. Or spent any time in Zucotti Park.

Tsunami was an SAT vocabulary word, Katrina was just a girl's name, Pluto was still a planet.

Marlon Brando, Christopher Reeve and Ronald Reagan were all still with us. Arrested Development was wrapping up its first season, Friends was gearing up for its series finale. The last installment in the Lord of the Rings trilogy was Best Picture, Denzel Washington's Man on Fire was tops at the box office. Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez had just split, Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston hadn't yet. Mel Gibson was only showing signs of his insanity, Robert Downey Jr. was just climbing out of his.

The New England Patriots had won their third and (so far) last Super Bowl, but all anyone cared about was Janet Jackson's half-time show. The Red Sox were at the tail end of an eighty-five year World Series drought. Michael Phelps hadn't made his Olympic debut, Jeremy Lin hadn't applied to college.

Seventeen-year-old Rafael Nadal was ranked #37 in the world.

Tomorrow, having beaten Gilles Simon in this afternoon's semi, Rafa will play in his eighth Monte Carlo championship match, hoping to extend his run in Monaco to forty-two straight wins*. There he'll face world #1 Novak Djokovic who, of course, has defeated the Spaniard in their last seven meetings, all in finals. And while victories on hard courts or grass might be explicable, Nole's triumphs in Rome and Madrid last year show that no streak is safe. Nadal is going to have to be at the top of his game in order to retain the title he's owned for almost his entire career.

And whether or not you're excited by the possibility of a world where Rafa no longer dominates the clay, you can't deny that tomorrow's result could make this season look very different from here on out. And the implications might mean the world for the two men who take the court Sunday.

* Rafa's only loss in Monte Carlo came in the 2003 third round, when he was ranked #109 in the world.

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