He said he felt nervous as victory loomed. He said he thought his scores here in the Monte Carlo Rolex Masters have been "unreal." But the reality is clear: Rafael Nadal's back at his imperious best. On a glistening Sunday afternoon on the edge of the Mediterranean, he crushed Fernando Verdasco 6-0, 6-1 to create an Open era record by winning a specific tournament six successive years.
Incredibly, this was his third victory with the loss of just one game this week. No one's come close to taking a set from him -- as Novak Djokovic did in the final last year -- and it's hard to see how anyone can trouble him on clay if he continues in this vein of form.
For someone who wants to win every point, let alone every match, the past 12 months haven't been easy for this charming 23 year old from Mallorca whose ferocity on court dissolves into a series of happy lopsided grins when asked to talk about his devastating tennis. A year ago, he was suffering from knee problems, and although he went on to win the Italian title in Rome after his victory here, his shocking defeat at the hands of Roger Federer in Madrid in May set him on a downward spiral that saw him slip to No. 4 in the world.
"It was a little bit nervous," said Nadal, who had to dig himself out of five break points against his serve at 4-1 in the second set. "I didn't win a tournament for a while and I saw the chance. And every time I have the chance to win, Monte Carlo is very important for me. There has been a lot of hard work -- a little bit of hard moments for me, no? After I came back from the (knee) injury, I had the abdominal break. At the end of the season, I did final and semifinal, but I didn't feel ready to win. So, when you win a tournament, a very emotional tournament for me like Monte Carlo, is a dream for me, no?"
Nadal, who's now joined Reggie Doherty as a six-time winner of this 104-year-old tournament, is aware he plays a different kind of game from the players who wafted wooden rackets in the reign of Queen Victoria, but that only makes it more special for him.
"The atmosphere here is unbelievable. Here, the tradition, you greet the history of tennis, no?"
Nadal, of course, is busy embellishing that history in a manner that'll be talked of down the ages. Poor Verdasco didn't play particularly bad. He made light of the fact he needed treatment for a stiff neck and did his best to make Nadal work, succeeding brilliantly on one point that was incredible even by Rafa's standards.
During that sixth game that made Nadal nervous, the champion made a lunging return on his backhand few other players would have reached. He came in behind a forehand approach, got lobbed, raced back and made the return off a ball that bounced viciously towards him because of the spin Verdasco had put on it. He was only beaten, finally, when Fernando came up with a terrific drop shot. The capacity 10,000 crowd were on their feet after that, including Prince Albert.
Verdasco, who's now lost to Nadal 10 times out of 10, was fatalistic about the whole experience. "I think if he plays like he played today, not only with me, nobody can beat him. He was beating everyone here for six years and I'm one more of these. I cannot tell you something new, no?"
The only other winner here during this strange week buffeted by gale force winds on the first Sunday before settling down to cool but relentless sunshine, was the tournament itself. Despite the economy, the absence of Roger Federer and the closure of Nice Airport for the past three days, the crowds held steady at last year's record of 124,000 spectators.
And as long as Rafa returns, they'll be back again next year -- barring any more volcanic eruptions.