When you win a tournament for the sixth year in succession you might be expected to treat it as routine, but Rafael Nadal greeted his triumph in yesterday's final of the Monte Carlo Masters as if it was the greatest victory of his career. He fell to the ground in celebration after a 6-0, 6-1 victory over Fernando Verdasco and eventually buried his face in a towel, overcome by emotion.
The 23-year-old Spaniard was shedding tears of relief. In the 11 months since he last won a title Nadal has seen his chances at four successive Grand Slam tournaments ruined by injury, lost 12 out of 14 matches against fellow top 10 players and been the subject of speculation as to whether his suspect knees would ever carry him back to the form that had made him the best player in the world.
There could not have been a more appropriate place to end his most barren run since his breakthrough year in 2004. One of the oldest tournaments on the calendar and staged in a spectacular setting overlooking his beloved Mediterranean, Monte Carlo is Nadal's favourite event.
In triumphing once again at the traditional start of the European clay-court season Nadal becomes the first player in the Open era to win the same title six years in a row. It was the 37th victory of his career and puts him level with Roger Federer on 16 Masters crowns, one behind the record held by Andre Agassi.
The world No 3 still has some way to go if he is to recapture his former glories, but this was a hugely impressive start to his clay-court campaign. In five matches he lost just 14 games, which is 10 fewer than his previous best Monte Carlo performance.
Although Nadal did not have to beat a top 10 player, his last three opponents – his fellow Spaniards Juan Carlos Ferrero, David Ferrer and Verdasco — were all top 20 players with proven track records. He now goes for a sixth successive title in Barcelona this week before rounding off his preparations for the French Open in Rome and Madrid.
"To win here is very special," Nadal said. "I've been saying all week that the important thing is to play well and I think I've been playing really well since the start of the year. Even though I hadn't won a tournament until now, I was ready to win. I was relaxed. For sure it's very emotional. I love this tournament. To win here again is a dream for me."
Prince Albert of Monaco was at the Monte Carlo Country Club —the Crown Prince was sitting next to the Clown Prince, Ilie Nastase — but it was the king of clay to whom the capacity crowd of 10,000 came to pay their respects. If the public at Roland Garros have always been curiously ambivalent about Nadal, they love him in the millionaires' playground on the Cote d'Azur.
Nadal did not disappoint, playing some remarkable tennis against an opponent who had knocked out Novak Djokovic, the top seed, in the semi-finals. Verdasco, however, had lost all nine of his previous matches against Nadal and the world No 12 was outclassed from the start of his first Masters Series final, losing the first six points. He took time out for treatment to a neck problem when 5-0 down, but by then the outcome looked inevitable.
All the old Nadal qualities were there: dogged consistency, steadfast defence, extraordinary court coverage and winning shots that defied belief. Several times Verdasco appeared to have the point won but then looked in disbelief as Nadal hit winners from seemingly impossible angles. On a rare occasion when he eventually won a long rally, Nadal having retrieved a drop shot, a lob and two smashes, Verdasco sank to his knees and blew a kiss skywards.
"He played unbelievably," Verdasco said. "I think he's still the best player on clay by far. If he plays like he did today, I don't think anyone can beat him."
Guy Forget, France's Davis Cup captain, said: "I think we have just witnessed the rebirth of Rafael Nadal on clay. After a one-year drought, he is back with an amazing level of play. He has bluffed everyone."Reuse content