Following a tumultuous first quarter of the season on hard courts, where he was forced to gradually make his way back from a surgery and a spell on the sidelines, world No. 1 Rafael Nadal braces himself for the start of the clay court portion of the season when he steps onto the courts in Monte Carlo to begin his campaign at the Masters 1000 event. His opening match will be against France’s Lucas Pouille, whom he has never faced previously on the tour.
Several weeks ago, the world No. 4’s campaign for his first Miami Open title was put on hold for another year, as the Spaniard crashed out of the third round of the tournament with a loss to Fernando Verdasco. It was a timid performance from Nadal, who rallied from a set down to level the match and force a decider. However, he was unable to stop his fellow countryman from breaking serve in the final set to close out the match 6-4, 2-6, 6-3.
While Nadal will always remain the favourite on clay, at least in the eyes of the fans, he insists that he is playing this year’s event with no pressure and should not be expected to trump the competition while he still looking to regain his confidence.
“The most important thing for me is to feel well on court again, feel confident, feel I am improving,” he said. “I was improving every week before Miami, and in Miami I played bad… If I’m able to find the confidence, to find the tennis here on clay, then it makes everything a little less difficult.
“I am working to be playing well as soon as possible, and if I didn’t believe that I could, I would not be here… If I am here it’s because I have the motivation, the passion, the emotion to keep playing tennis.”
The Spaniard will begin his campaign against Lucas Pouille, the French wildcard who ousted Dominic Thiem in a surprisingly straightforward 6-4, 6-4 win to reach the second round of the tournament.
This is set to the be the first time that Nadal and Pouille will meet on the ATP World Tour, with Nadal set to be the favourite for the match. Although he is mentally shaky, a few showings on the clay should get him back into focus for the pivotal portion of the season to come.
Prediction: Rafael Nadal in Straight Sets