If Rafael Nadal is going to reassert himself as the world's most formidable tennis player, now is the time to lay down a marker. Whenever the powerful Spaniard sets foot on the slippery terrain of European clay courts he gets an extra spring in his step and a swagger in his hips to the point where he displays an aura of invincibility. At least that was the case until an earth-shattering evening at Roland Garros last summer when the King of Clay was dethroned by an inspired Swede, Robin Soderling, in the fourth round of the French Open.
That remarkable defeat of Nadal opened the way for Roger Federer, his main rival, to record an elusive first victory in the second major of the year and complete a career Grand Slam before going on to regain his Wimbledon title and with it stake a solid claim to be regarded as the best player in the history of the game. Federer will rightly believe that he can again drive all pretenders to his world dominance into the red dust of Paris.
But the Swiss maestro is never slow to acknowledge Nadal's supremacy at this time of the year and knows that he is likely to need another helping hand from somebody like Soderling if he is to repeat his long-delayed Roland Garros success. Either a helping hand or a creaking knee. Last year, wear and tear on the limbs brought about by Nadal's punishing style of bludgeoning opponents to defeat from the baseline was as big a factor in leading to his shock Paris exit as the unexpected brilliance of his opponent.
Nadal seems to have learned a painful lesson from that chastening experience and, despite a premature retirement when three games away from defeat by Andy Murray in the quarter-finals of this year's Australian Open, he is showing signs of returning to what only 12 months ago was his imperious best. The Spaniard is now back to world No 3 ahead of a declining Murray, and has Serbia's Novak Djokovic in his sights in the battle for the No 2 spot behind Federer, the runaway ranking points leader.
A timely confidence boost for Nadal came when he progressed further than Federer, Djokovic and Murray in reaching the semi-finals of the significant Masters Series tournament won by Andy Roddick, the American, in Miami last week to supplement his similar last-four appearance in the preceding big event in Indian Wells. Any doubts about Nadal's worthiness to keep wearing his King of Clay label have been removed by those US hard court displays in advance of a return to the surface that suits him most.
Indeed, 26 of his 36 titles have been secured on clay, including a remarkable winning sequence at Roland Garros which began with his debut there in 2005 and extended to that Soderling calamity. Nadal, a frequent winner of the prestigious Italian Open in Rome and in his back yard of Barcelona, has been at his most dominant in Monte Carlo, where he and the rest of the game's big guns next week make the transition to the slower more deliberate style that clay calls for.
Five successive times he has been hailed as the Prince of the Principality and he did not drop a set there for three years until Djokovic claimed the consolation prize of taking one from him in last year's final. It would be a brave man who argues against a sixth successive title there for Nadal as the countdown to Paris begins. And it would be equally brave to suggest on the run-in to Roland Garros that the King of Clay has had his day. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org