Monte-Carlo Masters: For champion Wawrinka ‘the memories are coming back’

Stan Wawrinka opens the defence of his Monte-Carlo Masters title with a straight-sets victory over Juan Monaco

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Stan Wawrinka is the defending champion in Monte-Carlo Photo: Marianne Bevis

The early morning may have dawned cloudy and uncharacteristically cool in this golden corner of the Mediterranean, but Monte Carlo soon woke up to the fact that some of the most charismatic stars in tennis—Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal—were about to ply their trades on the orange terraces above Monaco’s famous coast.

So the sun came out, the red courts warmed up, and bus-loads of fans rolled around the hairpins to take in an oil-painting of a schedule.

The outlying third court was more than good: Home favourites, the hugely popular Frenchmen, Benoit Paire and Gilles Simon, contested a place in the third round. Before them, No16 seed, the classy Tommy Robredo, also played a compatriot, Marcel Granollers, while the third match featured one of the few Americans to make the trip east, No15 seed John Isner.

Crank up the volume to Court des Princes, and it was No6 seed Tomas Berdych against the flair of Sergiy Stakhovsky, then a popcorn contest between glamorous Fabio Fognini and No9 seed Grigor Dimitrov. Next up was No4 Milos Raonic and, to close, a high-octane contest between the flamboyant Gael Monfils and the unconventional Alexandr Dolgopolov.

Yet all these matches would fight for the attention, because on Court Central, it was wall-to-wall star quality—including those two giants of their sport, Federer and Nadal.

But what better place to start such a glorious day than with the defending champion himself, Stan Wawrinka.

Considering this was his first match in the tournament and his first on clay this year, he might have hoped for a gentler start… but that was not the case. He faced Juan Monaco, ranked 42 but a former top-10 player and only recently reaching his 20th tour final in Buenos Aires, where he lost to Nadal.

Indeed Monaco is nothing if not an expert on the red stuff. All but one of his eight titles has come on clay and all but one of his additional 12 finals, too. His form and ranking had fallen away with assorted injuries—wrist in 2013, hip last year—and he had fallen in the opening match of his first four tournaments this year, but he was on the move upwards, helped by his first Masters quarter-final in three years in Miami.

Perhaps the big question for Wawrinka was how well he would make the transition back to clay after a strong start to the season on hard courts. For despite winning his first Masters title here last year, he had subsequently won only one further match on clay, in Rome. And after winning the Chennai and Rotterdam titles and reaching the semis in Australia, he had also suffered something of a drop in form this year, scoring just two match-wins since.

Perhaps that was his reason for entering the doubles draw here, though he clearly enjoys the camaraderie of it too: “Yeah, it’s the first tournament on clay. I’m not playing next week. For me it was good to play with a friend, to enjoy a little bit some tennis, try to win a few doubles. Yeah, I always enjoy to play doubles.”

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Stan Wawrinka in action against Juan Monaco Photo: Marianne Bevis

In the event, Wawrinka began like the champion he is, holding serve to love in some style with two big forehand winners. It was another cross-court winner that then broke Monaco for a 2-0 lead, and the 31-year-old Argentine would manage just one game in the opening set. Wawrinka led, 6-1.

The second set began as a mirror image of the first: Monaco held and then broke to lead 2-0. But the Argentine’s lead was short-lived, as Wawrinka broke back and held to love for 2-2.

Monaco, though, took advantage of a few errors from Wawrinka—a couple of forehands long and a wild volley—to break again, but as the clock approached an hour, the Swiss dug in with some strong baseline defence but also threw in some huge forehands and a scattering of net attacks.

It paid off with a break back, and again the Wawrinka forehand ripped open Monaco’s court to convert the last of a string of break points. He served it out, 6-4, in 72 minutes, only his second clay match-win since lifting the trophy here last year.

There may have been rather more unforced errors than the Swiss would like—34 of them to 23 winners—but then he limited his opponent to just five winners, and dropped only two points on his first serve. One thing is certain, he was happy to be back on clay and also with his performance.

“I think I played a great match. It’s tough first round to play Monaco, but it’s a typical clay court match, so he is playing from the baseline.

“For me in general it’s quite good because that gives me time to [build] my game. I’m really happy with the start. Last two months really difficult with my game, with my confidence. I was happy to change, to come on clay again. The conditions are great here, so I’m happy with the first match.

“Of course, there were ups and downs, but that’s normal for a first match. I’m satisfied with my level physically and mentally. I was able to be aggressive. In the second set, where it was tighter, I was able to fight.”

Because of Wawrinka’s lack of wins on clay after Monte Carlo last year, he has the potential to build a lot of points in the coming weeks, though for now he is enjoying the moment: “Last year I had a fabulous week.

“All the memories are coming back to me. But this is a new year. I don’t think about the points because I believe every year starts from scratch, and then as the year goes on, you see how your ranking is coming along. But I’m very pleased to play on clay again after playing badly during the last two hard court tournaments. It’s good for me to be able to think about something else.”

The next thing for him to think about is a third-round match against Dimitrov, who beat him in their last meeting at Queen’s Club last year. The No9 seed beat Fognini, 6-4, 6-4, in a tidy 70 minutes.

Meanwhile, Berdych scored his first win too, 6-4, 7-6, in a tough hour and 45 minutes. The Czech next plays No12 seed Roberto Bautista Agut.

Robredo beat Granollers rather more easily, 6-1, 6-1, but in truth, most eyes were firmly focused elsewhere. Huge cheers announced the arrival of former champion Nadal onto central court, and there was not a seat to be had, despite the return of overcast skies.

There are few schedules that can boast such a treat in the space of four hours, and Wawrinka had been a fine overture to what followed.

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