Rafael Nadal is aiming for his eighth French Open title beginning next week. (Gabriel Buoys/AFP/Getty Images)
ROME -- Rafael Nadal trounced Roger Federer 6-1, 6-3 on Sunday to win his seventh Italian Open. Nadal improved to 20-10 overall and 13-2 on clay against Federer and won his sixth title in eight tournaments this year. The Spaniard will retake the No. 4 ranking from David Ferrer on Monday and assure himself of a top-four seed at the French Open, which begins next Sunday.
Three thoughts on the King of Clay's remarkable comeback season and his prospects for capturing a record eighth Roland Garros title:
1. Nadal's 2013 by the numbers is mind-blowing. Just when we think we've seen it all, Nadal continues to achieve new heights. Since his return in February after a knee injury sidelined him for seven months, Nadal has played eight tournaments, made eight finals and won six. Nadal has said all week that he could not imagine these kinds of results when he began his comeback. Really, no one could. Even without the benefit of the massive quantities of points from playing a Grand Slam this year (Nadal skipped the Australian Open in January), the 26-year-old will move to No. 1 in the ATP's Race to London on Monday, meaning at least according to ranking points, he's had the best season of anyone on tour. In 38 matches, he has lost only twice. His 31 wins on clay this year is the most since 2007.
"If you tell me that four months ago, five months ago, I would tell you you are crazy," Nadal said. "It's just more than a dream for me. I am enjoying very emotional days and today was one of those days."
The heavy workload hasn't seemed to slow him down, either. After a busy February and March he's played four tournaments in the last five weeks on European clay, peaking right before the French Open. In back-to-back ATP Masters 1000 tournaments in Madrid and Rome, Nadal won 10 matches in 12 days and beat three top-10 players. He'll go into Roland Garros with six titles in a year for the first time in his career. But here's the kicker: Despite missing two majors, the World Tour Finals, the Olympics and four ATP Masters 1000s, he's still the No. 4-ranked player in the world.
"It's true that I am not practicing as much as I did and I am not able to do it," he said. "But that doesn't mean that I don't have the chance to play at the very high level, and I am doing it. At the end the mental part is more important than the other things. I am fresh mentally."
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2. One man can still beat Nadal on clay. If not for Novak Djokovic, I'm not sure I'd object to just giving Nadal the Coupe des Mousquetaires now. The top-ranked Djokovic is the only man I could see beating Nadal in a best-of-five format, and he's the only one who has the game and confidence to make the Spaniard uncomfortable on his favorite surface.
But since he stunned Nadal in straight sets in the Monte Carlo final a month ago, Djokovic has won just two matches, losing to Grigor Dimitrov in Madrid and Tomas Berdych in Rome. He's been mentally up and down but says winning Roland Garros, the only major trophy he hasn't held, is his top priority this year. Is the Serb putting too much pressure on himself?
3. Will Nadal's knees hold up? On one hand, Nadal is right when he insists on not talking about his knees when he's posting such ridiculous results. I suppose he thinks it's unfair to his opponents, akin to saying, "I, Rafael Nadal, can beat you on clay with one arm tied behind my back," and he's grown weary of having to give a medical update at every interview.
But that doesn't mean the concern isn't legitimate, especially considering how much he's played over the last three to four months. He'll have a few days of rest before heading to Paris, where he'll need to prepare for the transition to the best-of-five format. If Nadal was 100 percent physically, I suspect he would just say so. The fact that he hasn't is cause for concern.
"I said before the tournament, during the tournament, I don't want to talk about health," he said. "I want to talk about tennis. I am what I am and how I am today is that I was able to compete against the best players in the world and have great success. So happy about my performance today and happy about everything."
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