Monte Carlo Masters: Rafael Nadal beats Aljaz Bedene to set Thiem rematch
Rafael Nadal beats Aljaz Bedene in straight sets to reach the third round of the Monte Carlo Masters
These have been difficult times for the world No60 and British No2 Aljaz Bedene.
During much of the last 12 months, he has been bidding to play for the country where he has lived since 2008, but despite now owning a British passport, the ITF has refused him permission to play Davis Cup for Great Britain after changing the eligibility rules.
Last season, through the ups and downs of applications and delayed hearings, Bedene nevertheless put together decent enough results to end the year at a career-high No45. 2015 started on a high with a final run in Chennai, he won the Irving Challenger and, with the switch to clay, reached the quarters in Casablanca, won two Challengers back to back in Rome and Todi, and beat Roberto Bautista Agut for the second time in Hamburg.
A return to hard courts, and he scored one of his best wins over then No11, Gilles Simon, in Winston Salem.
But after reaching the Chennai semis at the start of this year, wins had been hard to come by. Aside from a win over Ivo Karlovic courtesy of retirement, Bedene has won just a one main-tour match, in Miami, and then was forced to retire himself with a wrist injury—a problem he has had previously in his career.
Now came the latest challenge for Bedene: of all the seeds he could have drawn in his first ever appearance at the Monte Carlo Rolex Masters, he faced eight-time champion Rafael Nadal.
Clay is Bedene’s favourite surface, but he could not face a more decorated clay exponent in the No5-seeded Nadal. As if his record in Monte-Carlo was not enough—46 consecutive wins until his defeat in the 2013 final—he dominated all the other big clay tournaments, too: seven Rome Masters, eight Barcelona 500s, and a remarkable nine French Opens.
But since illness and surgery knocked Nadal back at the end of 2014, his form and confidence had been more unpredictable.
His return to clay as defending champion in the Rio 500 last spring ended at the semi-final stage against Fabio Fognini, who also cut him short in the third round of Barcelona. This spring, he lost in Rio to the No45-ranked Pablo Cuevas and in Buenos Aires to Dominic Thiem. He thus arrived in Monte-Carlo without a title since Hamburg last summer.
There have been other concerns this season: a first-round loss at the Australian Open, and then a retirement with illness in his first match in Miami. Monte-Carlo, then, was a chance to re-establish his form, and he may have been grateful that his first test was not against Lukaz Rosol, who had caused him problems before, but Bedene beat the Czech for the loss of just five games.
It did not take Nadal long to assert himself, and he broke in the fourth game. Bedene, though, had a break chance in seventh, but he could not convert it, and Nadal served out the set, 6-3.
The break came even earlier in the second set, in the first game, but once more, Bedene had the chance to break back in the fourth game. Nadal found a couple of big serves when he needed it, teased Bedene with a drop-shot-lob combination, and broke again for 5-2.
Yet Nadal still showed uncharacteristic signs of frailty in serving out the match. A couple of poor strikes from the baseline went wide and he faced two more break points, and this time, Bedene did convert.
It did not take long for Nadal to refocus, however: His trademark running forehand down the line took him to 30-0 on Bedene’s serve, and with 80 minutes on the clock, a 31st error from Bedene delivered the break to love, 6-3.
The Briton was disappointed that he had not taken his chances but revealed that he had picked up a back problem in this first match.
“I honestly didn’t play my best tennis. And seeing him struggling on the forehand side, I was trying to change a bit because I know a few years ago when he was ripping his forehand, that was his best shot. But now when you press his forehand, that’s his weaker side.
“But I wasn’t feeling great… got injections in my back in the morning because couldn’t do much without it. But, I was still feeling good on the court. I guess injections were helping. Had my chances; didn’t take them. I have to learn still a lot. But I think it was a good experience.”
Bedene next heads to Barcelona to train with Andy Murray: “He’s a great guy, a great player. Every time I get to practise with him, I can learn a lot. Although I’ve been so far practising only a few days, I’ve always seen it as a benefit for me.”
Meanwhile, Nadal’s win sets up an intriguing second match for Nadal, as his first seeded opponent is the in-form Thiem, who scored such an upset in the Buenos Aires semis.
However the 22-year-old’s stamina and fitness will be tested to the limit after he survived his second three-set battle in a row, this time against qualifier Taro Daniel, 4-6, 6-2, 6-0. Thiem overcame sickness and a foot ulcer in winning his opener against another qualifier. He is now up to 26-6 on the season, so will have to dig deep to beat Nadal again.
In the same quarter, the 2014 Monte-Carlo and reigning French Open champion Stan Wawrinka kept alive the chances of a face-off with Nadal at the end of the week with an entertaining, elegant match against fellow single-hander, Philipp Kohlschreiber. After exchanging breaks in the first two games, they headed to a tie-break in which Wawrinka unleashed his pile-drive backhand to claim the lead 7-6(2). Between them, and unusual for the tournament thus far, they had cranked up as many winners as errors, 30 of them.
Wawrinka broke immediately again in the second set with a glorious backhand winner down the line, but the nimble German sliced and diced his way back to 3-3, and made 11 straight points to bring up three break chances. But Wawrinka turned it around in the nick of time, holding for 4-4, and broke down Kohlschreiber in an eight-minute game of five deuces, eventually converting his sixth break point, 6-4.
He next plays No15 seed Gilles Simon.
There was a big upset at the bottom of the draw, however, with last year’s finalist and No6 seed Tomas Berdych losing his opener to qualifier Damir Dzumhur in a two-and-a-half hour marathon, 6-4, 6-7(1), 6-3. He will now play Milos Raonic, who took over two and a half hours to beat Cuevas, 7-5, 2-6, 7-6(5).
Facing Murray will be No16 seed Benoit Paire, who beat Joao Sousa, 6-4, 6-3, while No11 seed David Goffin edged Fernando Verdasco in another two-and-a-half-hour thriller, 7-6(2), 6-2, 7-6(1).