Back on European clay, Rafael Nadal looked nearly unbeatable last month. At the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters, the Spaniard dropped only two sets en route to his 28th ATP World Tour Masters 1000 title. The following week, at the Barcelona Open BancSabadell, Nadal won 10 consecutive sets en route to his 49thclay-court crown, tying Guillermo Vilas for the most clay-court titles won in the Open Era.
Now that Nadal has returned to better form, though, a bigger question has loomed over some tennis observers: Can he again challenge World No. 1 Novak Djokovic on the red dirt? The two have had many classic matches on the surface over the years. But it’s a question Nadal says he isn’t thinking about at the moment.
“I just follow my path and I think that Djokovic follows his. I do the best to be at my top level, and I think I’m getting closer to it. I’m trying to manage it,” Nadal said during his pre-tournament press conference at the Mutua Madrid Open. “For the moment, I’m happy with my level.”
Nadal didn’t face the Serb last month during his memorable run, but the Spaniard was able to bring his best level against some of the top players on the ATP World Tour. In Monte-Carlo, Nadal dismissed then-World No. 14 Dominic Thiem in straight sets 7-5, 6-3. Thiem is 13-3 on clay so far this season and has already made two clay-court finals this year.
Nadal also dispatched World No. 4 Stan Wawrinka in straight sets in Monte-Carlo and avenged his 2015 Madrid loss to Andy Murray by coming back from a set down to beat the Brit 2-6, 6-4, 6-2. In the Monte-Carlo final, Nadal outlasted another top player, beating Gael Monfils in three sets to win his ninth championship in the Principality.
In Barcelona, Nadal upended the two-time defending champion and World No. 6 Kei Nishikori in straight sets 6-4, 7-5 to win his ninth title at Barcelona as well. “I’ve been competing against the (best) players and have won matches against some of the best players of the world,” Nadal said. “Winning and playing matches against these people, it’s really good for me.”
In Madrid, the 29 year old returns to more friendly territory. The left-hander owns a 39-9 career record in the Spanish city and has won the tournament four times and reached the final three other occasions. With another title in his home country this week, Nadal also would become the all-time clay-court titles leader in the Open Era.
“These last weeks I’ve been doing it, fighting for important matches, winning,” Nadal said. “Let’s see what happens in the next week.”
If he does play Djokovic, who also will be going for his 29th Masters 1000 title, Nadal said he would welcome the matchup. “If I have to play against Djokovic,” he said, “that will be a great thing because that means I will be in the final.”