Rafael Nadal celebrates the 15th anniversary of his first Monte Carlo Masters title on Sunday, a victory which sparked a breakthrough season, a maiden Grand Slam triumph at Roland Garros and set the Spaniard on the road to becoming one of the sport’s greatest players.
Nadal was just 18 when he beat Guillermo Coria in the 2005 Monte Carlo final.
Two years earlier, he had offered tennis a glimpse of the future when, at 16, he stunned French Open champion Albert Costa on the famous red clay on the shores of the Mediterranean.
His 2005 triumph was one of 11 titles Nadal captured that year — eight of them on clay at Costa do Sauipe, Acapulco, Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Rome, the French Open, Bastad and Stuttgart.
He also proved he was no slow-court bully, ending the year with hard court victories in Canada, Beijing and Madrid.
That success was also reflected in the rankings.
At the end of 2004, he was at 51; fast forward 12 months and he was the world number two.
Among his 85-trophy career haul, 11 have come in Monte Carlo including a record eight in a row from 2005-2012 and three more between 2016-2018.
In 76 matches at the event, he has lost just five times.
Despite his maiden victory in Monte Carlo, however, Nadal wasn’t sounding confident about his chances at Roland Garros later that season.
“No, no, no. I am not favourite, no. It’s my first Roland Garros,” the teenager told reporters in faltering English, a language he was gradually mastering thanks to lessons of “20 minutes, 30 minutes” every day.
“I am playing good now, but I don’t know at the French Open if I’m going to play good or I’m going to play bad.”
He needn’t have worried.
Just weeks later in Paris, Nadal beat Roger Federer in the semi-finals and the now forgotten Mariano Puerta in the final, coming from a set down.
Eleven more Roland Garros crowns have followed for a Grand Slam haul of 19, just one behind Federer’s record 20.
Had it not been for a career-long struggle with wrist and knee problems – which kept him out of nine majors – that figure would likely have been even more impressive.
The ongoing coronavirus crisis has robbed Nadal of the opportunity to clinch a 12th Monte Carlo title.
However, the pause has given rivals time to reflect on Nadal’s 15 years at the top, with 209 weeks in the world number one spot.
He has not dropped out of the top 10 since Monte Carlo in 2005.
“It’s obvious he has a champion’s mentality, what he’s managed to produce over the years on all surfaces, the way he was bouncing back from numerous injuries,” said world number one Novak Djokovic.
– ‘A mental giant and a physical giant’ –
Djokovic holds a narrow 29-26 career edge over the Spaniard.
But Nadal is 24-16 against Federer and 17-7 over Andy Murray, the other member of the ‘Big Four’.
“The resilience, the intensity he brings – when you see him jumping around before you walk onto court, it already intimidates you. A mental giant and a physical giant,” added the Serb.
“I would say that, consistently, Rafa has been mentally the strongest,” said the Briton.
“Even when he was 18, 19, which is so rare for the guys coming through. That’s normally the part that takes the longest.”