Updated: May 3, 2012, 11:07 AM ET

Just something about the comfort of clay

Garber By Greg Garber
ESPN.com
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A month ago, Rafael Nadal was despondent. In a crowded press room underneath the stadium at the Sony Ericsson Open, he announced he was withdrawing from his semifinal match with Andy Murray.

"My knees won't let me play today," he said, and you could see the disappointment in his eyes. "I want to arrive to the clay court season with the right conditions."

Ah, the soothing comfort of clay.

Back on his home turf in Europe, Rafa has been an entirely different cat. He won all 10 of his matches in Monte Carlo and Barcelona -- beating fellow Spaniard David Ferrer in the home-court final -- and there has been no sign of the tendinitis that sent him home from Miami. The images from Barcelona, featuring Rafa's trademark biting of the massive silver trophy, were a startling contrast. And that bodes well for him in the three remaining events he will play on clay this month.

"I played at a very high level to win in Monte Carlo and now Barcelona without losing a set," Nadal said.

In other words: Novak Djokovic, consider yourself warned.

Last year, in the midst of an historic season, Djokovic whacked Nadal in the Madrid and Rome finals -- in straight sets. Rafa missed out on a chance for revenge when Roger Federer took out Djokovic in the semifinals at Roland Garros. Nadal eventually beat Federer in the French Open final for his sixth title in seven years. This year, he's going for a record seventh crown, which would break a tie with Bjorn Borg.

Don't bet against Rafa. Although Djokovic lost his grandfather early in the tournament at Monte Carlo, Nadal's 6-3, 6-1 beatdown in the final ended an 0-for-7 losing streak to Djokovic, a huge psychological boost after the disappointment in Miami. Nadal has a 21-match win streak on clay, going back to his loss last year in Rome.

Nadal is still only 25 -- he turns 26 during the French Open -- but he has already amassed some ridiculous numbers on clay. Here are the current streaks for three of his favorite tournaments:

• 44-1 at Monte Carlo

• 34-0 at Barcelona

• 45-1 at Roland Garros

That works out to a combined record of 123-2, a winning percentage of .984.

"Emotions are always high," Rafa said after winning in Barcelona, "but probably each year they get a bit higher as you are one year older and you don't know how many chances you are going to have left."

Even factoring in the brutal physical toll Nadal's game places on his body, he figures to have enough emotion to approach perfection over the next five weeks.

5 Questions With … Lisa Raymond

Two years ago at Indian Wells, Lisa Raymond had a "come-to-Jesus" moment.

She and longtime doubles partner Rennae Stubbs had just lost a first-round match and, well, Stubbs was upset.

"She's a good friend," Lisa Raymond remembered earlier this week, "and she said, 'What are you doing? You need to make some changes in your life, on and off the tennis court.' I knew she was right. I literally broke down in tears. I went from a conversation with my coach [Raj Chaudhuri] right to the treadmill -- at 8 o'clock at night.

"It was a lot of things, but the best way to say it was I lost my way for a couple of years. I put on some weight, and I was struggling with what I wanted to do. I was shell of my past self -- that's just not who I am.

"I couldn't blame anyone else. I was the one who needed to be held responsible, for my life and my career. Rennae handed my butt to me and I turned it all around. That was the moment."

It sparked a remarkable renaissance.

When she won last year's U.S. Open doubles title with Liezel Huber, Raymond became the oldest woman -- at 38 -- to win a Grand Slam doubles crown; Billie Jean King did it when she was 36. Last week, Raymond joined Huber as the co-No. 1-ranked doubles player in the world. It was the fifth time Raymond has ascended to No. 1, but the first time in nearly five years.

And that meant another milestone for Raymond: She's the oldest woman to rank No.1 in either discipline. Kveta Peschke, at 36, was the previous oldest.

Does Raymond get tired of hearing how old she is?

"I don't," she said, laughing. "It's funny. I never thought I'd be playing tennis at this age."

And playing, she insists, the best tennis of her life. The results suggest it is possible.

Raymond and Huber, who joined forces in March 2011, have won eight titles together, including four consecutive events this year: Paris indoor, Doha, Dubai and -- in a nice slice of symmetry -- Indian Wells. Raymond, who first earned the No. 1 ranking a dozen years ago, has now won 78 doubles titles (with 10 partners), sixth on the all-time list.

ESPN.com caught up with Raymond as she was driving from her home outside Philadelphia to New York, from where she flew to Madrid on Tuesday.

ESPN.com: So that Rennae Stubbs conversation really turned things around?

Raymond: Yes. As hard as it was to hear -- for both of us -- I'm so thankful that she values not only our friendship, but valued me and was worried about me. To hear it from her to get my life together was really important. Things just started happening. My personal life was in a bad way, which was reflected in my career. I got very irresponsible, for lack of a better word. This sport is so physical now; you have to rely on fitness. I neglected that for a few years. So I lost a few years when I wasn't in shape. I'm 38 but I feel like I'm more like 35, 36. I'm probably in the best shape of my life. I feel like I'm a better tennis player than I was five, six years ago.

ESPN.com: You were playing doubles with Julia Goerges and Liezel was playing with Nadia Petrova after a long partnership with Cara Black. How did you and Liezel become a team?

Raymond: It was just the right time in our careers to hook up. It's funny that it took this long to start playing together. At first, it wasn't smooth sailing. We lost our first three first rounds we played together. On paper, we looked like a great team, but we were just two separate entities that came to the court. But we figured out how to play as a team. It took a lot of hours on the practice court and maybe playing events we didn't necessarily want to play, but we needed it. More than anything, I think we believed in the partnership.

ESPN.com: You advanced to the semifinals last year at Roland Garros in your fifth event together. Was that the turning point?

Raymond: We played well in Paris and took that momentum into the summer circuit. We played well in Canada and winning the U.S. Open gave us a lot of confidence.

ESPN.com: Realistically, how much longer can you play?

Raymond: I don't really set a timeline for my career. I don't like to even think about whether I'll play through this year or next year. If I'm doing well and I'm healthy, I don't see the end. The day I don't have that hunger to be the best, that'll be the day I put my racket down.

ESPN.com: You were a good singles player, a two-time NCAA champion, ranked No. 15 and reached the quarterfinals at the Australian Open and Wimbledon. You went 18-19 in 2006, but played only two matches in 2007. Why did you stop to focus on doubles?

Raymond: I didn't feel I could maintain a top 20-30 ranking. That's just my personality. If I don't feel I can play at a high level, win titles, compete in the Slams, I don't want to do it. I'm too competitive to be mediocre. The things that drive me are being the best. Age to me is just a number. I'm healthy and fit and happy on and off the tennis court. When all those things come together, what more can you ask for? Having this success at an older age, it's such a different perspective. You realize what kind of hard work and determination it takes. It means so much more to me now.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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