Nadal leads Spanish charge in Monte Carlo

Led by the seemingly invincible defending champion Rafael Nadal, now unbeaten in 29 matches on the courts of the Monte Carlo Country Club, Spaniards enjoyed a virtual monopoly of success in third-round action at this ATP Masters 1000 event.

Of the six Spaniards on view, only Tommy Robredo lost, going down to Argentina's David Nalbandian, who continued his rehabilitation after hip surgery last year with a convincing 6-3, 6-4 victory.

Nadal slaughtered Germany's Michael Berrer 6-0, 6-1 and said he thought he had played better than he had in the previous round when he beat Thiemo de Bakker 6-1, 6-0. I suppose it depends which way you look at it.

"I played better, yes," said Nadal. "I played higher (up the court), I played close to the lines and my feeling is that I had more control of the ball than yesterday, no?"

Who's to argue? Actually, the only other man in the field to win this title, Juan Carlos Ferrero, will try when they meet in the quarterfinals on Friday. And he will probably have a lot more say in the matter than poor Berrer. Ferrero, nicknamed The Mosquito, nipped away at giant Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and eventually prevailed 6-1, 3-6, 7-5.

It was a dramatic duel, full of red-blooded stroke play and delicate clay court brushwork that warmed the happy Center Court crowd on an afternoon of bright sunshine, but chilly breezes. Tsonga, leaping for smashes and thumping volleys, seemed to have turned it around as he began to dominate the increasingly demanding rallies that unfolded in the third set. But Ferrero, who says he is not as fast as he was when he won here in 2002 and 2003, did his best to refute that suggestion by racing all over the court in pursuit of Tsonga's raking drives and surprising drop shots.

Great defense proved a perfect foil for attractive aggression -- it often does on clay -- and Tsonga, straining too hard to put the ball beyond Ferrero's reach, had to save match point at 4-5. A forehand winner that clipped the line took care of that one but, two games later, Spanish persistence prevailed as Tsonga double-faulted and then netted a forehand.

Earlier, Fernando Verdasco used his big lefty forehand to defeat Tomas Berdych 5-7, 6-3, 6-2 after the Czech had seemed capable of building on his recent run of fine form in the early stages of the match.

Indian Wells champion Ivan Ljubicic was another victim of Spanish clay court expertise, losing 6-0, 7-6 to David Ferrer and even Albert Montanes, ranked 32nd, got into the act by outplaying the No 4 seed Marin Cilic of Croatia 6-4, 6-4.

In the only Center Court contest not involving a Spaniard, No 1 seed Novak Djokovic out-hit Stan Wawrinka -- the winner in Casablanca last week -- 6-4, 6-4.

Meanwhile, the Stars and Stripes is still being held defiantly aloft in this European stronghold. No American singles players could stir themselves sufficiently to make it over to Europe this early in the clay-court season but the Bryan brothers are here for the duration.

Mike and Bob had a good work out in front of an enthusiastic little crowd of about 400 mostly British-biased fans on Court Two, where Andy Murray and Ross Hutchins won the first set before going down 6-7, 6-2 and 10-2 in the doubles tie break.

Murray looked a little better than he had in his singles yesterday -- when he won only two games against Phillip Kohlschreiber -- but that was not difficult. Hutchins, who has the most tenuous of connections to John McEnroe (answer at the bottom of this article), was at least Murray's equal as the British pair capitalized on a couple of Bryan errors in the first tie break to win it 7-4.

But the American twins slowly upped the tempo of their play and were comfortably in charge by the end of the second set. In fact, so difficult had it become for their opponents to win a point that Hutchins needed to hit five smashes and Murray four in one amazing rally at 0-4 in the second tie break as the Bryans pushed back defensive lobs from the perimeters of the court.

Mike and Bob won this title in 2007 and will be looking for another after losing in last year's final to Daniel Nestor and Nenad Zimonjic.

(Hutchins-McEnroe Answer: Hutchins is the son of Paul Hutchins who was captain of the British Davis Cup team that played the U.S. at Mission Hills, Rancho Mirage, Ca in the final of 1978. It was McEnroe's first appearance in singles for the U.S. team.)