(Photo credit: REUTERS/Albert Gea)
In a Madrid Open that has so far thrown up some thrilling early clashes, Rafael Nadal, a five-time champion at the event, takes on former world #6 Gael Monfils. Nadal has thus far been unstoppable on the clay, in fact, he has won his last 46 sets on the surface without reply, a run that stretches back to the French Open last year. Monfils, who enjoyed a career best season in 2016, was hit by injuries last season and is still working his way back to his best. But who will win this one?
Nadal and Monfils have met fifteen times over the course of their careers in a matchup that Nadal has dominated. The world #1 has won 13 of those 15 meetings. That includes their first meeting which came over a decade ago at the 2005 Monte Carlo Masters, where Nadal was victorious in straight sets in the round of 64, going onto win his first Masters title. Nadal also won the next two matches, in Rome in 2006 and in Bercy in 2008, without dropping a set.
Monfils picked up his first win in 2009 in the Qatar Open quarterfinals, winning 6-4 6-4. Monfils repeated the trick in Qatar in 2012, although he lost to Nadal another five times in between those victories, including in the Tokyo final. Nadal has also won their last five matches, including surely their most significant clash; the 2016 Monte Carlo Masters final. There Nadal ran out a 7-5 5-7 6-0 winner, finishing strongly to overcome what had been spirited resistance from the Frenchman.
Path to the second round
Nadal, as top seed in Madrid, received a first round bye and thus has not yet taken to court. But he played in dominant fashion last time he did step on to court. In his last match, Nadal picked up his 11th Barcelona Open title, defeating the Greek teenager Stefanos Tsitsipas, who had upset a number of high profile names, including Dominic Thiem and Pablo Carreno Busta. But as well as Tsitsipas had played to reach the Barcelona final, he found himself no match for Nadal, who won comfortably 6-2 6-1.
Monfils, unseeded in Madrid, began his tournament against Nikoloz Basilashvili of Georgia, the world #77 who had qualified into the main draw by defeating Bjorn Fratangelo and Mirza Basic. But the Georgian found himself outmatched by Monfils in the early going. The Frenchman played with his usual flair, but his all-round game impressed as he took the opener 6-2. Basilashvili levelled the match by winning the second 6-3, but Monfils again raised his level in the decider to win 6-2 3-6 6-3.
How do they match up?
Both men will likely look to play the majority of this match from the baseline. There are few better movers than Nadal and Monfils, although Nadal’s ability to consistently defend effectively at the end of his range is superior to the Frenchman’s. Nadal is also more comfortable dictating play than Monfils. Although Monfils doesn’t want for power, he has typically preferred to play more conservatively, albeit with flashes of his unorthodox brilliance.
As he has made clear in his comments before the match, Monfils will look to use his unpredictably to unsettle Nadal. Whether it will be enough is another matter entirely. Nadal always looks so comfortable on the clay that it is hard to imagine what an opponent could throw at him to really unsettle him. His movement can keep him in rallies against even the biggest hitters, whilst his own groundstrokes are regularly struck with real venom. In short, he has no obvious weaknesses and plenty of obvious strengths.
Monfils, being Monfils, can never entirely be ruled out of a contest. The Frenchman, once a junior world #1, has the talent to pull off almost any result. But his chances certainly don’t look good. Nadal is in imperious form, whilst Monfils record of 13-7 the year, though respectable, is hardly that of a world-beater. And even world-beaters might have some trouble stopping Nadal in the form the Spaniard is currently in. Expect the world #1 to advance in straight sets.