Rafael Nadal rolled into a potential career crossroads last week at the Madrid Masters 1000. He blasted straight through it without looking up at the light, touching the brakes, or turning off the road that might lead him to a 10th French Open title.
Whatever happens this week in Rome, a healthy Nadal will be the prohibitive favorite to win his 15th major in a few weeks at Roland Garros. Whatever happens next also will be part of a new chapter in Nadal's career. He closed this last, richly plotted tournament emphatically in the Spanish capital, showing off all those familiar deadly tools and talents like a peacock fanning its tail.
"This is a very emotional period of the season," Nadal told reporters in Madrid, after he survived a hairy tiebreaker and went on to throttle No. 8 seed Austrian Dominic Thiem in the Madrid final 7-6 (8), 6-4. "I really enjoy these tournaments. I just try to go for all of them. I try to compete."
Compete? Clean up is more like it.
But the mission certainly looked daunting. Nadal was not in one of those "group of death" sections of the draw in Madrid. His entire dance card was filled with peril.
Fabio Fognini had tormented Nadal unrelentingly during the Spanish icon's recent slump. The Italian trickster won three of four matches from Nadal in the first nine months of 2015, culminating in a five-set US Open stunner that Nadal had led two sets to none.
Fognini's asymmetrical game provided Nadal with some anxious moments again, but Nadal's nerves held. After his three-set, opening-round win, Nadal seemed to elevate to another level.
Nick Kyrgios was on fire during the early hard-court season, during which he produced, among other things, back-to-back wins against Novak Djokovic. Nadal crushed Kyrgios in Madrid, and his next opponent, versatile No. 10 David Goffin. That set up Nadal's semifinal encounter against nemesis Djokovic.
Nadal was on a seven-game losing streak against Djokovic, going all the way back to 2014. The Spaniard hadn't even won a set in those matches. But Nadal blew apart Djokovic's vaunted defenses, battering him with topspin forehands, while showing not a smidgen of doubt as he destroyed the world No. 2 in straight sets.
Nadal kept his composure at the last hurdle, taking out rising star Thiem in two tough sets.
Andy Murray and Djokovic may be lodged as tightly as ticks on a hound at No. 1 and 2, respectively, but the reality is that if Nadal isn't the true No. 1, then Roger Federer is. Right now, the men are out of sync schedule-wise, with Federer resting during Nadal's beloved Euroclay segment. They could meet again at the French Open, although Federer has been sitting on the fence about participating.
It's unlikely Federer will run out and start practicing on red clay after seeing Nadal's results.
As for Murray and Djokovic, at the moment they're just living exhibits in the case against the current 12-month "rolling" ranking system, in which the points a player earns each week are added to his total, while the points he earned during same week exactly 52 weeks ago drop off. Players live off their accomplishments of the previous year for a long time, although the posse does eventually catch up.
The ATP's other system, the Race, provides a more valid picture of the order of merit. The big difference is that the race ranking begins with a fresh slate on Jan. 1 because that's when the players begin to earn a place in the ATP World Tour Finals.
Nadal and Federer are Nos. 4 and 5 in the official rankings. But the top five in the race are Nadal, Federer, Thiem, David Goffin and Stan Wawrinka. Murray sits at No. 11, while Djokovic is No. 16 -- two places behind Pablo Cuevas.
"I did well in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, and also here," Nadal said in Madrid. "I hope to do the same in Rome."
There will be no stopping for rest or poking around at garage sales for Nadal on the road to Roland Garros. It now looks like a straight shot all the way to the title.