Last week, Rafael Nadal beat Frenchman Gael Monfils to win a record ninth Monte Carlo Masters title, adding to the eight consecutive trophies he won in the Principality from 2005 to 2012. On Sunday, he got the better of Japan’s Kei Nishikori to win his ninth Barcelona Open.
In the process, the Spaniard equalled Argentine legend Guillermo Vilas’ all-time clay-court titles record of 49. Not only is Nadal the only male player to win a tournament nine times, he now owns nine trophies at three separate events -- a Grand Slam (the French Open), a Masters 1000 (Monte Carlo), and a Masters 500 (Barcelona).
Unlike in 2009 and 2013, Nadal’s return to form in his latest comeback may have taken longer than one might have expected, but the Spaniard appears to have finally done so by rediscovering some of his forehand mojo.
Over the past two weeks, the shot has had consistent depth in a way only seen during the hardcourt swing at the tail end of last season, when he progressed deep in the draw at tournaments in Asia but couldn’t go all the way. The running down-the-line forehand, always a useful barometer for the Spaniard’s confidence, was back in full flow.
I love this forehand, just look at it pic.twitter.com/mI92RuLsc8— ... (@Janaidd) April 22, 2016
The Spaniard loves the forehand so much, he’s always willing to do the extra legwork required to run around the backhand to create a forehand.
Despite his love for the forehand, Nadal made an effort to let his two-handed backhand, an often underrated shot in his repertoire, share more of the workload in Monte Carlo and Barcelona. Not content with just putting the ball back in play, he ran around it less often, flattening out the shot and going for broke.
Nadal is a bit of an odd tennis player in that he needs to feel confident to play aggressively, rather than the other way around. Crucial for Nadal the past two weeks were whom his wins came against and how.
En route to both titles, the Spaniard beat Nishikori, Fabio Fognini, Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka and Dominic Thiem, all players who’d recorded wins against Nadal recently. Three of them were ranked in the top 10. The titles clearly meant a lot to him, as was evident in his celebration.
‘’I’m very happy because besides this being one of the most important tournaments that I have won, this is another week that I am playing very well,’’ Nadal said after his Barcelona win. ‘’These have been two fantastic weeks, weeks I have been striving for for a long time.’’
Nadal’s wins may do little to change the fact that Novak Djokovic is still favourite for the French Open. But coupled with the Serb’s second-round loss in Monte Carlo, the conversation leading up to Paris has changed perceptibly.
It will perhaps take nothing less than a win over Djokovic for Nadal’s critics to concede he is well and truly back, but the Spaniard is making some progress on that front as well. In this year’s Indian Wells semifinal, he took the Serb to a first-set tiebreak, his best showing against the World No 1 in the past 12 sets.
Vintage Rafa may not quite be back yet but there’s good reason to hope he will be.