“El Rey de Clay”: Nadal masters Monte Carlo for the fifth straight year

29 Apr 2009 by Matthew Zemek in Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters

What is it like to witness a dominant champion operating at the top of his game? From 2004 through 2007, Roger Federer dominated on grass and hardcourts at a level rarely seen in the history of tennis. Today, Rafael Nadal’s conquests of clay represent the most awesome displays of excellence in a sport that’s anything but easy.

Nadal did something on Sunday afternoon that even Bjorn Borg couldn’t manage in his own remarkable career. The top-seeded Spaniard, at just 22 years of age, eclipsed the celebrated Swedish icon by topping third-seeded Novak Djokovic, 6-3, 2-6, 6-1, to win an unprecedented fifth straight championship at the venerable Monte Carlo Rolex Masters. In a tournament that’s been part of tennis since the 19th century, Nadal became the first man to rule the oceanside event for half a decade without interruption. That kind of accomplishment is just one of the reasons why Nadal might very well surpass Borg as the greatest male claycourt player of all time. (A lady named Chris Evert, with seven French Open crowns, can convincingly claim that she’s the most accomplished claycourter of either gender.)

As is the case with Roger Federer’s career, Nadal’s dominance on red dirt is something that can only be fully evaluated when the Mallorcan stops playing competitive tennis on the ATP Tour. Nevertheless, it’s remarkable that Rafa-on the sunshine side of this twentysomething years-has already amassed a career portfolio that can stand up to Borg’s resume on very even terms. Nadal owns just four French Opens compared to Borg’s six, but by winning five straight times in Monte Carlo, Toni Nadal’s prized pupil has collected another poker chip that will come in handy when the fullness of his career is compared to Borg’s.

Just how did Nadal affirm his place in tennis history? Quite frankly, the Mallorcan didn’t play his very best, but like any proven performer, Nadal elevated his game in this title tilt’s most meaningful moments.

Nadal might have lost his first set at this event since 2006, but the world No. 1 was able to shrug off sloppy sequences to take the first and third sets against his skilled Serbian foe. Djokovic consistently bothered Nadal’s serve, and had momentum on his side at the start of the first and third sets, but Nadal found a way to turn the tide. In set one, Nadal responded to a 3-1 deficit by ripping off five straight games to take the early lead. After Djokovic, with a well-calibrated mix of patience and agression, used timely net forays to grab the second set in commanding fashion, Nadal felt under siege. Djokovic earned three break point chances in the first game of the final set, allowing spectators and pundits to think the unthinkable: A loss on clay was genuinely possible for the best player on the planet.

In typical fashion, Nadal would not allow history to slip through his fingers.

Nadal saved all three of those break points at the start of the third set, one of them on a remarkable retrieval of a quality drop shot by Djokovic, to hold for 1-0. Djokovic would break Nadal in the Spaniard’s following service game to stay in the mix, but after that final lapse, Nadal-up 2-1-took the final four games to hit the finish line first. Djokovic acquitted himself quite well and bolstered his hopes of contending for the French Open title, but in the end, the king wasn’t overthrown in a locality he’s ruled for five consecutive years. Djokovic did his level best to stage a revolt, but Nadal had the resources needed to defend his turf, and increase his stature in the annals of men’s tennis.

The big dogs on the men’s tour will now take a break, as the Masters 1000 claycourt series resumes on April 27 in Rome. When the tennis world gathers in that most historic city, men named Djokovic and (Andy) Murray will be even more eager to knock Nadal off his perch. They No. 3 Serb and the No. 4 Scotsman might even think that they’re extremely close to ambushing the Spaniard. But as a gifted fellow named Federer has discovered over the past four years, you have to be incredibly accurate and particularly powerful for an extended period of time to get so much as a whiff of Rafa Nadal on the terre battue of Europe. Contenders will come and go, but there’s simply no legitimate reason to think that this supremely special Spaniard’s reign on crushed red brick will end anytime soon.

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WTA Wrap-Up: Lisicki uses booming serve, powerful groundstrokes to claim first career title in Charleston

When she defeated Venus Williams on Thursday in the second round of the Family Circle Cup, Sabine Lisicki still didn’t command the respect of the women’s tennis world. Four days later, the 19-year-old German has finally made her mark on the WTA Championships Tour, with a powerful game that will make opponents worry on every surface.

Liberated by her early-round breakthrough, Lisicki made the most of her opportunity by capturing her first career WTA Championships title on Sunday in Charleston, S.C. Lisicki defeated Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki, 6-2, 6-4, in the final of the Family Circle Cup. The victory on green Har-Tru clay represents its own milestone for Lisicki, but it carries added meaning beyond the satisfaction of a trophy.

On the basis of this tournament title, Lisicki-ranked 63rd entering  the event-will now climb to No. 43 in the world and surpass Anna-Lena Groenefeld as the highest-ranked woman in Germany. It’s hard to imagine a player achieving more goals in a single week of top-shelf tennis, but Lisicki-the 16th seed in Charleston-managed to stay focused amidst a whirlwind of brand-new situations.

The truly amazing aspect of Lisicki’s championship was that the German managed to maintain a level head after vexing Venus on Thursday. Lots of lower-tier players reveal an occasional flash of brilliance in a single match, only to crash out of the tournament in the following match. Lisicki, however, showed no dips in concentration. After beating the older Williams sister, Lisicki lost only four games to unseeded Elena Vesnina in the quarterfinals, and then did the same thing against sixth-rated Marion Bartoli in Saturday’s semis. In her second WTA final, Lisicki continued to play with confidence and boldness against the fifth-seeded Wozniacki, who looked understandably flat and sluggish after a draining three-hour war the day before against top-seeded Elena Dementieva.

Lisicki dictated every aspect of this match, but the clear key was the German’s nearly untouchable serve. Lisicki consistently bombed in serves of over 120 miles per hour, racking up 9 aces, dozens of service winners, and plenty of cheap points in the process. After cruising through the first set, Lisicki-up 3-2 and 5-4-faced break points that could have changed the trajectory of the match. When the pressure of the moment was at its peak, Lisicki found the serenity needed to find a strong first serve and battle back to deuce. The resilient Wozniacki fended off five match points in the final game, but a few final first serves allowed Lisicki to overcome some late-match nerves and celebrate with a roll in the green clay.

Sabine Lisicki might now become a force in women’s tennis, with a serve most of her competitors would envy. But even if the young German doesn’t become a regular Grand Slam contender, she’ll always remember the week when she finally became a champion on the WTA Tour.

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