The sight of red brick dust staining his socks and scuffing his shoes seems to have given Rafael Nadal a new lease of life.
Victories in Monte Carlo and Rome mean the 2008 Wimbledon champion has now won two consecutive clay court Masters titles in the space of three weeks. Perhaps more importantly for his chances at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, Rafa says he’s not being troubled by the knee injuries that have dogged him for the past year.
Nadal broke an 11-month title drought in Monte Carlo, by lifting the Masters trophy for the loss of just 14 games over five rounds. He followed that up with the Rome Masters, an altogether tougher week.
He did not play nearly as well in the Eternal City as he had in Monaco but Nadal still won – and that proved to him that he can maintain a run of spectacular performances when he wants to and that he can win ugly when he has to. That is the sort of form that could bring him his fifth Roland Garros title in a few weeks time.
“I wanted to win this tournament but it was difficult to win like Monte Carlo,” he said after laughing and joking his way through the presentation ceremony in Rome. “I am probably more happy winning without playing my best. When I play my best it’s a more a mental thing. It is impossible to win only losing only one set and playing bad. I am very happy with the way I’ve played because the level was high.”
By beating David Ferrer in the final and claiming his fifth Rome trophy, Nadal also equalled Andre Agassi’s record of 17 Masters titles. Agassi won his last Masters shield in 2004 at the age of 34 but Nadal is still only 23 and, knees permitting, he has his sights on many more. But all of that could wait; for the moment the Spaniard was just delighted to be winning anything again.
What was even more pleasing to the champion was that he had come through two tournaments without any injury problems. Just to be on the safe side, he had opted to withdraw from the Barcelona event in the week before the Rome Masters began in order to give his knees a rest. It was a break from his normal routine – and Nadal is a creature of habit, especially when it comes to the lead-up to the French Open – but it worked a treat.
“I didn’t have any problems with my knees the whole week which is unbelievable for me,” he said. “I had no problems for the last two tournaments and so that is very important for me but now is not the moment to talk about my knees. The important thing is that I won a very important tournament and finally I am very happy. Probably I didn’t play as well as Monte Carlo, I played well but not as well as Monte Carlo but the important thing is winning.”
For the moment, the momentum is with Nadal. He is fit, he is winning again and, on clay, that sends a chill down the spine of everyone else in the locker room.