Rafael Nadal is back on the clay he loves so much, and he looks like his old self again.
Nadal, who has a mediocre 16-5 record this year, got the flawless start he was hoping for Wednesday at the Monte Carlo Masters, beating 21-year-old wild-card entry Lucas Pouille, 6-2, 6-1, in the second round.
“Today I (will) go back to the hotel with a fantastic feeling because I played probably (my) best match of the year,” Nadal said.
The switch to clay was also enjoyable for second-seeded Roger Federer and defending champion Stan Wawrinka, who won his maiden Masters tournament last year at the Country Club.
Nadal won eight consecutive titles in Monte Carlo from 2005-12 but has been struggling recently, dropping to fifth in the rankings. Now in the European clay-court season, the nine-time French Open champion is biding to regain his old form ahead of another shot at the title at Roland Garros.
After recovering from a wrist injury and an appendectomy, Nadal lost in the quarterfinals at the Australian Open. He then enjoyed a good week in Buenos Aires, where he won the title, but struggled on the hard courts of Indian Wells and Miami.
Following his loss to Fernando Verdasco in Florida, Nadal returned home to practice and changed his racket. He said he had thought about the change for a while but could not start playing with the new model earlier because it was not ready.
“With this new racket, I have less control,” Nadal said. “Not today. In theory I have less control. In theory I have more power and more spin.”
On Wednesday, the 14-time Grand Slam champion was in total control. He limited his mistakes to five unforced errors and did not face a single break point against an opponent ranked 108th by the ATP.
“I played with the right mentality, the right concentration,” Nadal said. “I didn't make (consecutive) mistakes, something that happened the last couple months with me. I fixed that today.”
A forehand passing shot gave Nadal a 3-1 lead in the second set, and he broke again in the sixth game before serving out the match at love.
Pouille was impressed.
“His balls are different from any other player. They have this spin, plus they bounce a lot higher,” Pouille said. “He was able to take advantage of my weaknesses. He was very solid and he played better and better as the match went on.”
Nadal will face a trickier test in the next round against big-serving John Isner, who lost a memorable five-setter to the Spaniard in the first round of the 2011 French Open.
“He is a very dangerous player on any surface because his serve works well on clay, hard, indoor, everywhere,” Nadal said.
The seventh-seeded Wawrinka produced a convincing 6-1, 6-4 win over clay-court specialist Juan Monaco to join Nadal in the third round, while Federer spent less than one hour on court in a 6-2, 6-1 win over Jeremy Chardy.
Next up for Wawrinka will be ninth-seeded Grigor Dimitrov, who beat Fabio Fognini, 6-3, 6-4. Milos Raonic progressed with a 6-3, 7-6 (4) win over Joao Sousa, while Jo-Wilfied Tsonga, Tomas Berdych, Tommy Robredo and Gilles Simon also advanced to the third round.