Is Rafael Nadal back? The question that has been sparked sporadically over the past two years remains unanswered for now. But what can be said is that the 14-time Grand Slam winner has provided the biggest sign yet that he can return at least to a level that will enable him to put up a real fight to regain the French Open title.
Nadal landed his first Masters 1000 title, the tournaments that represent the nine biggest on the ATP Tour, in almost two years in Monte Carlo last week. In the process he knocked off the defending French Open champion Stan Wawrinka as well as world No. 2 Andy Murray, before withstanding some fireworks from Gael Monfils to outlast the Frenchman in the final.
It was the perfect start to Nadal’s buildup toward his return to Roland Garros next month, when he will attempt to win an unprecedented 10th French Open title. And it already represents an improvement on his 2015 European clay-court season. Then, for the first time since before his first French Open crown in 2005, Nadal failed to win a single title en route to Roland Garros. And his grip on the title in Paris was duly ripped away in emphatic fashion by Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals.
Nadal didn’t have to go through the world No. 1 to win in Monte Carlo, after Djokovic suffered a surprise defeat in his opening match. Still, the man from Mallorca could not hide what the victory at a tournament he won for eight straight years, between 2005 and 2012, meant to him.
"The victory here confirms that I am better and I am very happy," he said following his three-set win over Monfils. "It is a very, very emotional week for me at a very important event. Monte Carlo is one of the most important places in my career without a doubt. To win again here after three years is something so special for me.
“I worked hard to have this trophy with me. I am enjoying this moment. It is an emotional moment after some tough moments. But that's part of life. It is part of sport in general.”
Given he will turn 30 at the start of June and has put his body through a rigorous grind since first emerging on the tour as a 15-year-old, his body may never quite get back to his impregnable physical peak. However, much of the issues since returning from his latest injury layoff at the start of last year have been in the mental department. Thus, his win in Monte Carlo and the confidence it brings has the potential to be hugely significant.
It will be even more consequential if Nadal can replicate his performance level and success in Barcelona this week.
"To compete well two weeks in a row is something so positive,” Nadal said in the aftermath of his Monte Carlo triumph. “I have another chance next week in Barcelona and I am going to try my best again.”
The early signs are good that he can continue his roll. In his opening match in Barcelona on Wednesday, Nadal beat compatriot and former top-20 player Marcel Granollers in straight sets, 6-3 6-2.
On Thursday, he will now take on another Spaniard, Alberto Montanes, in the third round of a tournament where Kei Nishikori, the No. 2 seed, provides the greatest threat to Nadal landing a title he has already won on eight occasions. Should Nadal advance past Montanes, he will face the winner of Fabio Fognini and and Viktor Troicki in the quarterfinals, with Feliciano Lopez a potential opponent in the semifinals.
After Barcelona, Nadal will have a week off before he is scheduled to compete in back-to-back Masters 1000 events in Madrid and Rome. Then comes the truly big one, when Nadal will aim to emphatically answer the doubters by proving he remains the King of Clay at Roland Garros.