Sunday, April 22, 2007

Ruler of the Red Stuff

Nadal Wins Third Monte-Carlo Title

by Craig Hickman

The sold-out crowd at the Monte-Carlo Country Club was rooting for the underdog. Whenever Roger earned a break point on Nadal's serve, the din of applause increased. For all of Rafa's declarations that he was feeling no pressure, his errant forehand throughout much of the first set betrayed his words.

But Roger couldn't capitalize. Break point after break point, the tenative Swiss struck his forehand out.

The tension, palpable.

In the 9th game of the first set, Roger cracked, striking two errant forehands, an errant backhand and stared down the barrel of triple break point. He saved the first with a wide forehand approach and Nadal's trip over the linesman. But Roger's forehand beyond the baseline, his 7th unforced error in the last 8 points, gave Rafa the opportunity to serve for the first set.

But Rafa got tight. Both players shanked forehands. 30-30. Roger lost patience, snatched badly at a backand and Rafa had his first set point. A brilliant rally where Nadal turned defense into attack earned his forehand a short ball that it struck crisply, racquet head a blur, for a clean winner.

The Spaniard sat one set away from a hattrick of titles.

The second point of the secong game of the second set brought the entire crowd to its feet. A protracted rally ended in Federer's favor when Nadal tried to between-the-leg an excellent lob Roger touched over Rafa's head. Roger won the point. Rafa, the game.

It's as though that knocked the sails out of Roger. He donated his next service game with tenative, sloppy play. That deliciously ornery mood of earlier in the week spread over him like the crushed brick on the ground under his dusty feet.

Rafa was four games away, and unless Roger snapped out of it, they'd come quickly. Rafa yanked Roger all over the court on his gamepoint, consolidating the break when Roger's squash-shot forehand slid long. Three games away.

After holding serve, Roger earned half chances, squandered them. I was beginning to think he was beginning to feel like a forming diamond. Two games away.

A few Roger mishits and a double-fault, and Roger stared at break point. But a heavily backspun dropshot save it. His fourth double-fault sailed long by a French countryside mile. Exhale. Nadal hit an easy forehand sitter just wide. Deuce. Serve and volley. Rafa's dipping return forces Roger to miss. Exhale again. Rafa mishit a forehand lob just wide. Service winner. Twice. Jeux, Federer.

How will Rafa respond to wasting those break points? Will Roger take advantage?

The crowd thunders applause when Rafa steps to the line to serve. They want this to go the distance. Roger wants nothing of it. Four flailing errors elicits a frown on coach Roche's face. Mirka hides her consternation behind too-big glasses. One game away.

Roger begged for a point to be replayed. No wonder. Rafa's exquisite slice backhand drop volley that died in front of Federer was sickening. "Please, sir, can't we replay the point? I was distracted." No. Rafa questions a close serve, gets a few boos and hisses, Roger opens his shoulders and, angrily, whacked two balls into the corners that Rafa couldn't get to. Hmmm. Where was this intensity from the start?

Rafa hasn't been broken the entire match. Will he serve it out? From his first two screaming forehand winners, one would surely think so. As I said yesterday, this man will not be denied. After an hour and 33 minutes, Roger's shanked backhand gives, Rafa his second match point. Roger saves it with a blistering forehand down the line.

But Rafa's got two more. He only needs one. Roger lets another backhand fly, and the King of Clay's reign is baked hard in the earth.

67 consecutive victories.

The trophy presentation started out feeling more like a funeral than a celebration. Roger looked forlorn. Nadal, subdued, didn't rub it in.

Tony, can you help me?

But then the place returned to life when Nadal urged the ATP, in Spanish, to keep Monte-Carlo a Masters event. One of the most beautiful and intimate venues on the tour, it enjoys the love of fans and players alike.

The Bryan brothers (What? Wait. Americans in Monte-Carlo. Winning?) joined the celebration and received their trophies for their first doubles title at the foot of the mountains beside the Mediterranean.

Roger, a bit more than Rafa, chatted together casually.

Ah. There it is. Roger is a bit more casual than Rafa on the red stuff. And Rafa, smiling assassin, makes him pay.

Bold prediction: this is the only final we'll see these champions contest this spring.

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