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Monte Carlo run shows reports of Nadal's decline were premature

Nearly a year had passed between storms, and the drought was severe. Tennis so badly missed the tempest that is Rafael Nadal's game, a singular whirlwind of passion, form and aesthetics. How fitting that it struck Monte Carlo, province of tennis royalty since the late 19th century, for the Spaniard's name fits comfortably on the pages of history.

He entered Sunday's final all tidy and neat, and he finished in youthful disarray: covered with dirt, hair askew, emotions unchecked. Nadal does seem almost childlike at times, but in the wake of his 6-0, 6-1 dismantling of Fernando Verdasco, he buried his head in a towel and wept the tears of perspective. Finally, a comeback defined. Just when the men's game seemed so disturbingly vulnerable at the top, in stepped Nadal to christen the clay-court season with vengeance.

There can be no telling, at least not yet, if he's all the way back. A few key names were missing along the Riviera, including Roger Federer, Juan Martin del Potro and Andy Murray, who did show up but quickly vanished, still lost in thought. One suspects, though, that Nadal would have dismissed them all. Every element of his game was in place, at full speed, with exquisite timing. Verdasco, the world's ninth-ranked player, often seemed astonished at his countryman's virtuosity, at one point sinking to his knees and gesturing to the skies in gratitude for a well-earned point.

As much as any sport embraces parity, it also requires an element of dominance: the Yankees, the Lakers, a Muhammad Ali or Arnold Palmer. It wouldn't be much fun if every team or individual mirrored each other. There has to be a higher standard, a mountain to climb, and when a second element joins in -- the Dodgers, the Celtics, Joe Frazier, Jack Nicklaus -- the public edges closer. Tennis may never recapture the rampant popularity it enjoyed in the 1970s and early '80s, but the Nadal-Federer rivalry brought an undeniable resurrection back into the realm of must-see theater.

And we just might get some more.

In winning his first tournament of any kind since last May, Nadal rekindled the imagination. Perhaps Murray-Novak Djokovic is your idea of a dream matchup, but word doesn't travel far. Federer-Nadal, believed to be in such serious jeopardy due to the Spaniard's lingering knee and abdominal problems, is the one that matters -- and now looms as a cherished spectacle for the French Open and beyond.

Nadal couldn't have picked a better stage for his awakening. The Monte Carlo Country Club has hosted world-class tennis tournaments since 1897, forever looming on an elegant hillside with the sparkling Mediterranean below. "It doesn't feel so much like a tournament," Nadal said upon his arrival. "Here, you greet the history of tennis. It feels like a club." And a very exclusive one, rife with celebrity and high fashion and a sense that it would be little bother for anyone to spend $17,000 on a stamp.

One can only imagine Nadal's impact on such a crowd when he first played Monte Carlo, decked out in pirate pants and sleeveless shirts with his foreboding stubble and long, grungy hair. Who in heaven's name is this beast? And does he ever stop moving? Back then, people couldn't decide whether Nadal's best weapon was his game or his countenance, and when fully assembled on a landscape of clay, the package was sublime.

The years passed, and people came to realize that Nadal is a kind, simple, almost nerdy fellow. He is ridiculously superstitious, painfully shy, unfailingly polite and admittedly terrified of real conflict, once saying, "If I have any problem, I'm going to run away." He comes from wealth, lives at home with his family, had difficulty driving a car (failing his first test) and, outside a tennis court, seems about as ominous as a palm tree. When the Andre Agassi-Pete Sampras feud resurfaced during the "Hit for Haiti" doubles exhibition at Indian Wells last month, Nadal awkwardly endured it with a wooden smile, later claiming he hadn't understood a word.

Perhaps there's an expiration date on rogue's clothing for an inherently decent man. Nadal has taken to decidedly conventional attire, contesting the Monte Carlo weekend in a tropical-blue, short-sleeved shirt, with shoes to match, and a pair of striped shorts suggesting poolside at a dentists' convention. Make no mistake, though, the old Rafa lives. He still leaps out of his chair, as if discovering a shoe is on fire, to approach the net for the coin toss. With so little ground to cover from there to the baseline, he nevertheless breaks into an all-out sprint for three or four steps. For this match, he brazenly elected to receive. There were too many highlights to recount, but I'd wager that Verdasco's most vivid memory is of Nadal hitting two near-impossible shots from identical angles in two different ways.

With Nadal serving at 1-0 in the first set, Verdasco ripped a cross-court backhand that forced Nadal into a slicing backhand get. Waiting for the kill, Verdasco ignored an acre of open court and snapped a cross-court backhand volley to the same area, wrong-footing Nadal into an all-out scramble. Verdasco got in perfect position for what surely would be a down-the-line response, but Nadal, on the dead run, somehow reached down to smack a two-hand, cross-court backhand pass with topspin. I didn't catch the name of the British play-by-play man on the Tennis Channel, but the words "ridiculous" and "unbelievable" were spoken with conviction.

Later, in the second set, Verdasco again rushed the net behind a shot that had Nadal racing to his right. Same angle, same general area - but this time, Nadal pushed a cross-court backhand winner with one hand, struck nearly flat with considerable touch. Listen closely, and you heard a familiar refrain: Did that just happen?

The fact is, Verdasco had been excellent in his 6-2, 6-2 destruction of Djokovic in the semifinals. At last year's Australian Open, he engaged Nadal in one of the greatest matches of recent years, a five-set masterpiece of punishing forehands, tireless court coverage and indomitable spirit. Now, in Monte Carlo, Verdasco could only smile in admiration. This was clay, and the great man was back.

As match point went down, Nadal collapsed in relief and lay on his back, the better to get fully immersed in his beloved clay. Rising to his feet, he looked to have just returned from a very ill-advised hike in 110-degree weather. He wept at first, overwhelmed by the realization that he is once again playing fabulous, pain-free tennis and holding a shiny trophy aloft. Then came many smiles and polite replies, and the sweet knowledge that the clay-court season is just beginning. Rare is the man who can singlehandedly bring it to life.

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