Nadal hits out at Federer for snubbing clay competition
After one of the flattest months in the history of the ATP tour, world No 1 Rafael Nadal made a welcome return to the stage in Monte Carlo yesterday and immediately livened things up with a sly dig at his old rival Roger Federer.
Asked about Federer's decision not to contest a single clay-court event for the second-straight season, Nadal grinned broadly. "He says he will love to play against me again in best-of-five sets on clay," came the reply.
"He said that a couple of days ago and I thought he would play Roland Garros. Then a few days later he says he will not play in one event, so there's a little bit of controversy with that."
Nadal did not go into further detail, but clearly he feels that Federer has chickened out. Over the past 15 months, Federer has reshaped the story of their 14-year rivalry by winning four straight meetings, all on hard courts. Were they to play on clay, though, Nadal would be heavily favoured to extend his overall advantage, which now stands at 23 wins from 38 matches.
Red clay is the blood that runs through Nadal's veins. For the past decade and more, the eight weeks that run from the start of Monte Carlo to the end of the French Open have been his property. Others might nip in and pick up the odd title, even a slam in the case of Novak Djokovic (2016), Stan Wawrinka (2015) and Federer himself (2009).
Now Nadal is building up for another crimson-stained campaign, probably starting on Wednesday when he faces either Aljaz Bedene or Mirza Basic here in the second round. "I feel good," he said yesterday. "I'm practising well. I am playing with the right intensity, I think."
Underneath the high-class linen, one suspected he might have been pawing at the ground.
Admittedly, Nadal's fitness record has been dreadful of late. He has failed to complete the past three tournaments he has entered - a run dating back to November's Paris Masters - and did not even bother turning up for Indian Wells or Miami.
Yet some would argue that Nadal's most recent niggle, the recurrence of a hip injury which he announced in February, a couple of days before his first match in Acapulco, might have been exaggerated.
The sceptics suggest that Nadal has effectively been playing the same game as Federer, only saving himself for the clay instead of the grass.
The theory makes logical sense, even if it stands in the unprovable category. Either way, it feels like a terrible waste that we will have to wait until Wimbledon for the next theoretical chance of enjoying Federer-Nadal XXXIX.
(© Daily Telegraph, London)