Monte-Carlo Masters preview

Monte-Carlo Masters 2017: Will Nadal throw down clay gauntlet to returning Djokovic and Murray?

Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray are among the top players in action at the Monte-Carlo Masters this year

rafael nadal
Rafael Nadal in action in Monte-Carlo last year Photo: Marianne Bevis

Until now, the tennis year has been dominated by the punishing hard courts and temperatures of Australia, the Middle East, and North America.

And while some men made a short detour for South America’s “golden swing” during February, now the red stuff has the stage all to itself. For almost two months, tennis plays its longest, unbroken swing on a single surface and—after this week—the longest period in a single continent, all the way to its climax at the French Open.

It is a swing rich in Masters titles, too, no fewer than three of them, and each played in some of tennis’s most elegant settings. And none is more glamorous than the Monte-Carlo Country Club on its flower-fringed terraces above a backdrop of the Mediterranean.

And no-one loves this beautiful tournament more than the nine-time champion Rafael Nadal.

Nadal targets history on beloved clay

The Spaniard has dominated the clay season since winning his first Masters in Monte-Carlo as a teenager and going on to win the first of seven Rome Masters and nine French Opens just weeks later.

And it is possible that he could make history three times over before he is done with clay this year by winning 10 titles at three different tournaments—Monte-Carlo, Barcelona and Roland Garros.

But then the numbers when it comes to this Spaniard are already jaw-dropping: 20 of his 28 Masters titles are on clay; he will reach 400 matches on clay with his opener this week; and if he defends his Monte-Carlo title, he will reach 50 titles on clay, his 70th altogether.

Perhaps last summer, there were some who wondered whether he could again become the man to beat after his dramatic withdrawal during the first week of the French Open with a wrist injury. He went on to play just five more events, closing his season with a first-round loss in Shanghai.

But ranked No9 at the start of 2017, he proved just how resilient and determined he is. With finals at the Australian Open, Acapulco and Miami, it has taken some outstanding tennis to beat him, and that has come largely at the hands of old rival, the rejuvenated Roger Federer—three times, indeed.

But with Federer bypassing most of the clay season, who else can hold the Spaniard back from his clay surge?

His first seed is one of the best of the #NextGen players, Alexander Zverev, who has come within a whisker of beating Nadal in both previous meetings—most recently in Australia where the young German led by two sets to one.

Then Nadal’s quarter-final could throw in Grigor Dimitrov, who pressed Nadal to five hours and five sets in the Australian semis. Nadal should then face his ultimate test, No2 seed Novak Djokovic, in the semi-final.

Djokovic back to the fray

Nadal, in his 2017 form, will be a challenge for everyone on this particular clay court, but make no mistake: Djokovic will be a formidable test in return. With more Masters titles than anyone else, two of them won in Monte-Carlo—his home and local club, incidentally—the Serb has become a problem for Nadal.

Eleven times in their last 12 meetings Djokovic has prevailed. Four of those wins have come on big clay stages, too: Monte-Carlo, Rome and Roland Garros. But if there is a glimmer of hope for Nadal, it will be that 2017 has yet to see the flawless and precise tennis that kept Djokovic at No1 for so long.

Since winning Doha, he has won only six matches, though he has had a poor run of luck in his draws: Twice the returning low-ranked Juan Martin del Potro followed by the hot-form Nick Kyrgios, who scored both wins.

But rather as Nadal may breathe a sigh of relief at Federer’s absence, so Djokovic may do at Kyrgios’s absence. Not that things have fallen particularly easy for him even now: Fabio Fognini, Karen Khachanov and Gilles Simon are dangerous non-seeds before the quarters, with David Goffin and Dominic Thiem, two of the best new additions to the top 10 in recent months, vying for the quarters. And all that before Nadal in the semis.

Although his elbow forced Djokovic out of Miami, he looked good in his recent Davis Cup appearance. And if he is fully fit, expect him once again to be a thorn in everyone’s side.

Murray returns where it all began in 2016

After two disappointing early losses in Indian Wells and Miami last year, Murray turned a big corner come the clay. It began with a semi run in Monte-Carlo, where he lost to Nadal in three sets.

Then came his final finish in Madrid and the Rome title, the start of a 67-5 run: undefeated on grass, winning his second Olympic gold, unbeaten through the last five tournaments of the year, claiming the No1 ranking with his first World Tour Finals trophy.

Perhaps the tiredness from that gut-busting effort lingered as he made a fourth-round exit from the Australian Open, and he subsequently confessed to a bout of shingles before going on to win in Dubai.

However, he won just one match in the “sunshine” swing, and missed Miami and Davis Cup with an elbow injury. Indeed, right up to his charity match with Federer in Zurich last Monday, he was uncertain whether he would be ready to play in Monte-Carlo, but he is. And he is now just two wins short of 100 on the red stuff.

Has he had enough match-play since Dubai six weeks ago? Will his serving be back to 100 percent? A tricky first couple of rounds will find out, with the likes of Gilles Muller, Marrakech finalist Philipp Kohlschrieber, and the returning Tommy Robredo, who have all given Murray severe tests before. Murray then faces either former finalist Tomas Berdych or No5 seed Marin Cilic in the quarters.

andy murray

Andy Murray will be in action in Monte-Carlo Photo: Marianne Bevis

Can Wawrinka regain clay glory?

One of only three former champions in the draw, Stan Wawrinka could be the dark horse—if a world No3 can be regarded as such.

The Swiss man may be a three-time Grand Slam champion—including on the hallowed clay of Roland Garros—but can be unpredictable. However, that unpredictability seems to intrude less on the 32-year-old with each passing season. What’s more Monte-Carlo yielded his only Masters title, and he has been a finalist in both Madrid and Rome, too.

This year he has yet to win a title, also thwarted by Federer, who edged his compatriot in the Australian semis and the Indian Wells final. And even with Federer’s absence, Wawrinka has some dangers before a possible Murray semi. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, with two titles this year, returns from paternity leave, Lucas Pouille is one of the rising forces on the tour, and the unseeded Viktor Troicki and Mischa Zverev could be early tricky hurdles.

Of absentees and unknown quantities

Federer’s decision to miss the clay Masters may bring relief in some quarters, as will Kyrgios’s absence. But some of the powerhouse players of his season, big-hitting Americans such as Jack Sock and Steve Johnson, along with Sam Querrey and John Isner, have spurned the non-compulsory Masters in Monaco to play in Houston.

Other dangers such as Frenchmen Gael Monfils, finalist last year, and Richard Gasquet, are out of contention, along with injured Milos Raonic. World No7 Kei Nishikori has played this tournament only once before, and bypasses it again.

However, there could be some returning surprises in the pack, such as Robredo, back on court with a protected ranking after a couple of years of injury problems and two lots of surgery: All but one of his 12 titles have come on clay.

Fellow veteran and an expert in the surgery stakes, Tommy Haas also has a protected ranking, and arrives in Monte-Carlo for the first time since 2008 after his first win of the year—the oldest ATP match-winner since 1995.

Look out for wild cards, too: 18-year-old Casper Ruud, a semi-finalist on Rio’s clay, and Borna Coric, still only 20 and about to play in his second Marrakech final in a row.

But make no mistake, most eyes in Monte-Carlo will be squarely focused on Nadal, as they have been for more than a decade in this gorgeous corner of the Med.

Ranking impacts

There will be no change between the top four ATP ranks, but Nadal could rise to No5 with a final finish. In the Race, Federer cannot be overtaken, but Nadal could be overtaken by three players if he fails to win a match.

Previous champions in draw: Nadal (9), Djokovic (2), Wawrinka (1)

Previous finalists in draw: Berdych (1)

Potential seeds out of main draw: No4 Federer, No6 Raonic, No7 Nishikori, No11 Monfils, No15 Kyrgios, No16 Sock.

Other absentees among top 56: Ivo Karlovic, Gasquet, Isner, Querrey, Johnson, Fernando Verdasco, David Ferrer, del Potro, Donald Young, Marcos Baghdatis

Clay titlists this year in draw: Thiem (Rio), Pablo Cuevas (Sao Paulo), and Kohlschreiber and Coric contest Marrakech final

Britons in action: No1 Murray, No44 Dan Evans, No47 Kyle Edmund: the latter pair play one another in Round 1.

Oldest and youngest: Haas is 39, Ruud is 18

NB top 8 seeds have a bye in Round 1, so first match is Round 2

Top half

No1 seed Murray quarter

R2, Muller or Robredo

R3, first seed, No15 Albert Ramos-Vinolas

QF, Seeds are No9 Berdych and No5 Cilic

SF, No3 Wawrinka and No7 Tsonga are top seeds

No3 seed Wawrinka quarter

R2, Mischa Zverev or Jiri Vesely

R3, first seed, No16 Cuevas

QF, Seeds are No11 Pouille or No7 Tsonga

SF, No1 Murray and No5 Cilic are top seeds

Bottom half

No4 seed Nadal quarter

R2, Evans or Edmund

R3, first seed, No14 Sascha Zverev

QF, Seeds are No8 Dimitrov or No12 Roberto Bautista Agut

SF, No2 Djokovic and No6 Thiem are top seeds

No2 seed Djokovic quarter

R2, Malek Jaziri or Simon

R3, first seed, No13 Pablo Carreno Busta

QF, Seeds are No6 Thiem or No10 Goffin

SF, No4 Nadal and No8 Dimitrov are top seeds

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