Rafael Nadal - ATP Masters Series Monte Carlo - Day Eight

For the third time in four years, Barcelona audiences thrill to the spectacle of an all-Spanish final at a tournament that has not crowned a foreign champion since 2002.  Aligned to challenge five-time champion Nadal for the second time in two weeks, Ferrer confronted his fabled compatriot in the 2008 and 2009 finals here as well as a 2007 semifinal.  The diminutive, pugnacious world #6 once called himself  the “worst player in the top 100” but has voiced an almost defiant confidence in the face of the mountainous task before him.  Offering Ferrer a ray of hope is his gallant performance in the 2008 Barcelona final, the only occasion on which he won a set from the five on clay since the latter’s first Roland Garros title.  As he observed, though, only an indifferent performance from Nadal can offer him an opportunity to threaten the world #1, while he must display outstanding tennis in order to capitalize upon such an opportunity.  In the Monte Carlo final, a distinctly mortal Rafa still stifled his compatriot in straight sets amidst an afternoon riddled with more unforced errors than either player normally concedes.  An opponent with a thunderous offense, like a Djokovic or a Soderling, might well have punished Nadal for the diffident mid-court balls that betrayed his nerves.  Lacking the requisite first-strike power, Ferrer cannot wreak similar devastation but instead must attempt to win a war of attrition, thus playing neatly into the hands of the indefatigable world #1.

With that first title of the season fresh in his memory, Nadal’s nerves will have receded at the tournament closest to his Mallorcan lair.  Not just defeating but dominating their opponents, both players have advanced to the final with minimal ado.  Unconquered by a compatriot in Spain since 2003, Nadal should reassert his supremacy over his nation.  But Ferrer has infused intrigue into this clay season, crafting a potential alternate script to the Nadal-Djokovic duel at the top that seemed certain to develop.

While Barcelona spectators may wonder which Spaniard to support, Stuttgart audiences will have little difficulty identifying the bearer of their hopes.  Spared by Azarenka’s shoulder injury, Julia Goerges surged through this bristling draw into the most significant final of her career.  Stirring German pride, she ambushed Stosur in an epic semifinal by out-serving the Australian on crucial points and retaining her poise when the match hung in the balance.  Goerges may relish the opportunity to shine in the absence of her charismatic countrywoman Petkovic, who had monopolized most headlines related to German tennis.  With a win over Wozniacki, who defeated Petkovic two rounds ago, she could claim a substantial share of the spotlight while vaulting well inside the top 30.  And she can reflect upon a clash with the world #1 at Copenhagen last year, which soared unexpectedly into a third-set tiebreak.  Now that the battleground shifts to her home country, will she feel the pressure that Wozniacki felt in Denmark?

While Goerges seeks her first Premier title, the world #1 pursues an almost equally momentous milestone:  her first red clay title.  Twice a finalist on this surface in 2009, Wozniacki inhabits a generation with few clay specialists who could block her route in Paris.  Fallible during her charge to the Charleston title, she has grown looked progressively more in command of her surroundings this week.  In an arena that once hosted a fall hard-court tournament, the indoor clay of Stuttgart imperfectly resembles the slower, grittier dirt of Roland Garros.  Nevertheless, Wozniacki would boost her self-belief on the surface by claiming the trophy (and instrument of transportation) captured by Henin a year ago.  Before her 21st birthday, she already threatens to evolve into an all-surface contender, a splendid achievement for her and a disquieting prospect for her rivals.