Rafa prepares for another French run

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - I know he hasn't won a title of any kind in 11 months, and he's dropped from No. 1 to No. 3 in the world in that time, but Rafael Nadal appears to be gearing up for a run at another French Open title.

The Mallorcan strongman, at the time of this article, was blazing his way through the draw in Monte Carlo, home to the clay-court Monte Carlo Masters at the prestigious Monte Carlo Country Club. (The key word here, I believe, is Monte Carlo.)

Also at the time of this piece, Nadal had improved to a ridiculous 32-1 lifetime in Monte Carlo, where he's seeking an amazing record sixth straight title there. He's rattled off no less than 30 straight victories in Monaco and already holds the record there with his five straight titles.

And one more thing, at the time of this article, Nadal had won all six of his sets in Monte Carlo thus far, dropping a mere eight games in three matches, including a straight-set victory over former world No. 1, former French Open champ and two-time Monte Carlo winner Juan Carlos Ferrero.

If Rafa can get his total game together in time for the start of the French, he'll seek a fifth championship there in six years. Last year, the super Spaniard was shocked by Swede Robin Soderling in the fourth round in Paris, marking one of the biggest tennis upsets of the 2000s, or perhaps any decade, for that matter.

Nadal headed into the match as a prohibitive favorite, but, as it turned out, his knees were bothering him something fierce, limiting his movement and preventing him from producing an Open Era-record fifth straight French Open crown. Instead, Rafa's chief rival, Roger Federer, went on to capture the title by beating Soderling in the final and becoming the sixth man in history to capture all four major titles during his career and tie Pete Sampras' men's record for major titles (at 14, at the time).

Rafael Nadal is focused on the European
clay-court swing, which will culminate with the French Open in late May/early June.
Note: Nadal had beaten Federer in the three previous finals at Roland Garros.

Nadal's 2009 season wound up being quite a disappointment for him, as he lost his No. 1 spot, to Federer, while he battled both knee and abdominal injury problems. His aching knees prevented him from defending his Wimbledon title last summer, which was just one summer after he and Federer played in perhaps the greatest tennis match of all-time at Wimbledon, with Nadal coming out on top in that remarkable five-set war of attrition on the famed Centre Court at the All England Club.

Back to the present.

The 23-year-old Nadal is a six-time major champion who still needs the U.S. Open to complete a coveted career Grand Slam. And since he's already secured an Olympic gold medal, an elusive U.S. Open title would give him a career Golden Slam.

Nadal's clay-court heroics have been well-documented, so much so that's he's been considered the best clay-court player since my boyhood tennis idol, Bjorn Borg. Heck, before he's done, Rafa may end up being even better than Borg on the dirt. (I almost feel like I'm supposed to say that, but no one could possibly be better than Borg on that surface.)

For the record, Borg is the all-time men's leader in the Open Era with six French Open crowns.

The latest King of Clay, Nadal, went into the history books last year by becoming the first-ever male to simultaneously hold Grand Slam titles on hardcourt, grass and clay after beating Federer in the Aussie Open (hardcourt) finale. And the strapping lefty dominated the '09 European clay-court swing, titling in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome on his way to the French before his knees, and Soderling, would get the best of him.

In 2006, the gritty Nadal broke Guillermo Vilas' 29-year male record of 53 consecutive clay-court wins, although Vilas seemed to be bothered by Rafa's achievement, which came over a two-season period, compared to Vilas, who turned the trick in one campaign back in 1977.

Also in '06, Nadal became the first player to beat Federer in a major final, by doing so in Paris.

Note: Nadal is a stunning 5-2 lifetime against Federer in Grand Slam finals.

Nadal's seemingly-unstoppable clay-court win streak, which got all the way up to 81 matches at one point, was finally halted by Federer in a final in Hamburg in 2007. The 81 clay-court matches is a male Open Era record for consecutive victories on one surface. But Nadal did go on to beat Roger in the French Open final for a second straight year.

Federer is the reigning world No. 1 -- as he has been for the better part of six years -- and currently holds three of the four major titles, but we still see Nadal as the favorite for the French, where I believe he'll prevail once again in early June.

Stay tuned.

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Scott Riley
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