Monte Carlo Masters: A fourth Federer and Nadal final?
With the arrival of the clay season, can anyone challenge Rafael Nadal's supremacy?
A new colour, and with it a new mood, is spreading across the tennis calendar.
Between now and the end of May, the longest, unbroken tennis season on a single surface settles onto the terracotta dust that will be the home for the men’s tour for eight unbroken weeks. From here on, it is a clear run to the French Open.
Yet while the players enjoy fewer time zones to cross and the regular sleep patterns that come from this constancy, it is a season where much can be gained but much may be lost.
It is the only season that features three Masters in the space of a month, so the points available to the form players are huge.
This glorious season opens in Casablanca, then circles the Riviera to some of Europe’s loveliest locations. The first, the self-styled “Gem Of the Mediterranean”, is the Monte Carlo Masters, a venue that revels in more than a 100 years of history.
It is played out amongst burnt-orange terraces surrounded by palm trees, and enjoys unparalleled vistas to golden fringes of sand and the inky blue depths of the Med as it stretches towards the horizon.
There is probably no more stunning location on the tennis circuit, and not surprisingly, it is a favoured home for many of the tour’s top players: Novak Djokovic, Robin Soderling, Tomas Berdych, Marin Cilic and Caroline Wozniacki.
The clay brings with it the chance for a fresh set of names to make their mark amongst the top seeds, men who have grown up on the red stuff and learned their craft on the sliding grit. So while this is the only non-mandatory Masters of the year, it has attracted a field of players well worthy of the tournament’s history and kudos.
Only seven men in the top 40 are missing -most of them Americans who have opted for the USA’s single clay court event in Houston -and only two are missing from the top 10. Djokovic was a last-minute withdrawal with a knee problem and Soderling, who developed a foot injury in Miami, has chosen to head straight to Barcelona next week.
Quarter 1: Nadal
At the top of the draw is the man who stands head and shoulders above the rest when it comes to clay, and when it comes to Monte Carlo in particular. At 18, Nadal won his first title here, but few predicted that, by the age of 23, he would still have a clean sheet at this illustrious event, becoming the first man to win six consecutive titles at a single tournament. And it’s hard to see anyone in his quarter -indeed anyone in the entire draw -preventing a seventh.
He is aiming to continue the unbeaten run on clay that began here last year and continued through all four of his 2010 clay events, and with final finishes in both of the recent hard-court Masters, he seems to be in prime condition as he takes to his favourite surface.
His first challengers are likely to be the improving Richard Gasquet followed by either Jo-Wilfried Tsonga or, more likely, Tomas Berdych, who took a set from Nadal in the quarters of Miami. The Czech had a good run at Roland Garros last year as well, so he does have some form on clay, but Nadal should have no problem making the semis.
Quarter 2: Murray
After Andy Murray lost in the opening match of his third successive tournament in Miami last week, he took a late wild card entry to Monte Carlo. He has since been practising on that rare thing, a clay court in London. He has also dropped his part-time consultant, Alex Corretja, and tied up temporarily with Darren Cahill and Sven Groeneveld for the clay Masters events.
Murray has enjoyed only modest success on this surface. Last year, he managed just three wins in the three Masters, and he has never reached the final of a clay event. And just when he could do with some good fortune, he faces one of the strongest draws in Monte Carlo.
Murray’s opener could hand him Marcos Baghdatis, ranked 26 in the world and capable -on a good day -of upsetting the very best.
Next could be one of a set of clay experts, including Albert Montanes, a semi-finalist in Casablanca this week, or Gilles Simon, a former No6 who is reasserting his fine credentials on the tour. If Murray overcomes those hurdles, his next opponent could be Gael Monfils-who beat him when they last met in Paris -or Mikhail Youzhny. His ultimate reward would be Nadal in the semi-finals, and for Murray, on clay, that has to be a step too far.
Quarter 3: Ferrer
On paper, the only challenger to the Spanish stranglehold in this quarter may come from the fascinating match-up between the power and speed of new wunderkind, Milos Raonic -who blew hot and cold in his 6-3, 0-6, 6-0 defeat of Michael Llodra -or the huge but unfulfilled talent of Ernests Gulbis, who scored a confidence-boosting win over one of the players of the moment, Alexandr Dolgopolov.
It was this time last year that Gulbis had a golden run through Barcelona, Rome -beating Federer in the second round -and Madrid. But this quarter holds the much-improved Viktor Troicki, as well as Tommy Robredo, Feliciano Lopez and last year’s runner-up, Fernando Verdasco.
However, the favourite for the quarter is David Ferrer -already a winner in Acapulco and with a clay record last year bettered only by Nadal.
Quarter 4: Federer
Federer faces a challenging opener against old friend Philipp Kohlschreiber, who showed some real form against Soderling and Juan Martin Del Potro in Indian Wells and Miami and scored a gritty three-set win over Andrey Golubev in his first match in Monte Carlo.
The next obstacle is Marin Cilic but it is Federer’s quarter-final opponent who could pose the biggest danger.
Nicolas Almagro has the classic Spanish clay pedigree that could beat Jurgen Melzer to take a place in the quarters. He has won titles this year in Brazil and Argentina, and had a tight three-set loss to Ferrer in the final of Acapulco.
Almagro is close to his best-ever ranking and a formidable foe on the dirt. Although he hasn’t beaten Federer in five outings, they haven’t met since 2007, and there is certainly the chance of an upset here. Federer, though, has looked in good form this year and should win through.
With Djokovic’s absence, Federer as No2 seed will expect to face his clay-court bÃƒÂªte noir in their fourth Monte Carlo final. Nadal won all the previous three, 2006 to 2008, and will surely win again to take an unprecedented seventh consecutive title.