After one of the flattest months in the history of the ATP tour, world No 1 Rafael Nadal made a welcome return to the stage in Monte Carlo on Sunday, and immediately livened things up with a sly dig at his oldrival Roger Federer. Asked about Federer’s decision not to contest a single clay-court event for the second straight season, Nadal grinned broadly. “He says he will love to play against me again in best-of-five sets on clay,” came the reply. “He said that a couple of days ago – and I thought he would play Roland Garros. Then a few days later he says he will not play in one event, so there’s a little bit of controversy with that.”
The 31-year-old's statement comes ahead of his return to the ATP tour at the Monte Conte Masters this week. Federer, who guided Spain to a Davis Cup quarter-final victory over Germany earlier this month, will head into the event as a 10-time champion.
Red clay is the blood that runs through Nadal’s veins. For the past decade and more, the eight weeks that run from the start of Monte Carlo to the end of the French Open have been his property. Others might nip in and pick up the odd title – even a slam, in the case of Novak Djokovic (2016), Stan Wawrinka (2015) and Federer himself (2009). But they always feel like crumbs stolen from the giant’s table.