Its mellow orange courts are arranged along picturesque terraces that overlook the Mediterranean to the south and rugged peaks to the north. Head west, and those peaks edge their way past Nice, Cannes, and St Tropez. Head east, and the winding coast road heads into Italy in just 10 or so kilometres.
Little wonder that the Monte-Carlo Country Club, a couple of hair-pin bends across the border into France, has captured many a tennis fan’s heart—and many a tennis player’s heart, too. And one in particular has made this place, this tournament, his own: Rafael Nadal.
A stunning 10th title in Monte-Carlo last year was one of Nadal’s key stepping-stones back to No1. And as on so many occasions before, he went on to dominate his beloved clay, with titles in Barcelona, Madrid and Roland Garros.
Indeed a career-long dominance on the red stuff began at this club, where he won his first Masters as a teenager in 2005. That year he went on to win the first of 10 Barcelona titles, the first of seven Rome Masters and the first of 10 French Opens.
His 10th in Monte-Carlo title last year—courtesy of a remarkable 63-4 record at the tournament—was his 50th clay-court title and his 70th career title.
But there are more milestones at stake than simply the defence of tournament titles. This year, Nadal will pursue his 31st Masters title: He is currently level with Novak Djokovic on 30. But the Serbian former champion could also edge ahead with victory.
On the line too is the No1 ranking. Not that Roger Federer will be facing Nadal on a tennis court during the clay season, but the Swiss has no points to defend until his return to grass. And because he trails Nadal by only 100 points, the Spaniard has to defend his Monte-Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid titles to stay at the top. Should he lose one match, Federer will become No1.
Djokovic may have slipped to No13 in the ranks, and may have continued to struggle with form and confidence since his return in Australia after six months off the tour, but the former No1 has an outstanding record in clay Masters. Twice he has won in Madrid, four times in Rome from eight finals, and twice in Monte-Carlo from four finals.
However, Djokovic’s form this season has been largely untested following minor surgery on his elbow after the Australian Open. Indeed, aside from his fourth-round run in Melbourne, he has not won a match since his quarter-final retirement at Wimbledon last July.
And his confidence, like his form, is also uncertain after restructuring his coaching team three times in under a year. But for Monte-Carlo, he has returned to his tried and tested former coach Marian Vajda which, combined with the comforts of home—and Djokovic has an apartment just a cycle-ride from the Club—could bring just the turn-around he needs.
But like Nadal, Djokovic faces a testing draw, exacerbated by a seeding outside the top eight who receive first-round byes.
Both men could face qualifiers in their openers, and there are some strong contenders among the seven. Currently still in contention are Andreas Seppi, who beat Alexander Zverev on his way to the Rotterdam semis, teenage star Stefanos Tsitsipas, who has reached the quarters in both Doha and Dubai this year, and Jeremy Chardy, who beat Fabio Fognini in Indian Wells and Grigor Dimitrov in Miami.
For Djokovic, the second and third rounds are full of youthful talent. Borna Coric, at a career-high 28, made the semis of Indian Wells and quarters in Miami; Andrey Rublev won on Umag’s clay last summer, was US Open quarter-finalist, the Doha runner-up, and is now into the main draw on clay for the first time; and Djokovic’s first seed is No5 seed Dominic Thiem, who has seven clay titles, and was runner-up to Nadal in Barcelona and Madrid last year.
Come the quarter-finals, come the fearsome Nadal, who has the likes of Aljaz Bedene, Adrian Mannarino, Thanasis Kokkinakis, Karen Khachanov, and Gilles Simon between him and a showdown with Djokovic.
The two giants of tennis have played each other 50 times—more than any in the Open era. Djokovic leads 26-24, but over the last decade, since their only Davis Cup meeting early in 2009, Djokovic has stacked up a 22-14 lead, and 7-1 since he beat Nadal in Monte-Carlo on his way to the 2015 title.
On clay, the balance shifts towards Nadal, 14-7, but over the three-year span since that 2015 victory, Djokovic has built a 3-1 advantage. In Monte-Carlo, where they have contested three title matches, they currently stand at 2-2.
Whoever comes through will find more big tests in the semis, with No4 Dimitrov vying with the returning No6 David Goffin for a semi place. Dimitrov has not found Monte-Carlo a particularly happy hunting ground, with two quarter-final finishes his best. Goffin, though, beat Thiem and Djokovic to reach the semis last year.
In the bottom half of the draw, No2 Marin Cilic, could meet No14 Milos Raonic for a quarter-final place, while Tomas Berdych runs the first-round gauntlet of an unseeded Kei Nishikori working his way back from injury. Berdych’s first seed is scheduled to be Miami semi-finalist, Pablo Carreno Busta, who has three finals and a title on clay to his name.
The other quarter boasts a clutch of men who could make the final: Lucas Pouille (one title from three finals this year, two clay wins in Davis Cup against Italy, and semi-finalist in Monaco last year), Diego Schwartzman (champion on Rio’s clay), Fognini (six clay titles from 12 clay finals), and Zverev (champion in Rome and Munich last year).
Notable absentees by choice are Federer, Juan Martin del Potro, Hyeon Chung, Kevin Anderson and John Isner.
Also missing with injury or following surgery are Andy Murray, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Gael Monfils and 2014 champion Stan Wawrinka.
Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters draw: 56-men, with eight Round 1 byes, 16 seeds
Previous champions in draw: Nadal (10), Djokovic (2)
Previous finalists in draw: Albert Ramos-Vinolas, Berdych, Fernando Verdasco
Clay titlists this year in draw: Thiem (Buenos Aires), Schwartzman (Rio), Fognini (Sao Paulo)
Davis Cup match-wins on clay last weekend: Pouille (2); Fognini (1); Nadal (2); Zverev (1); Cilic (2)
Potential quarter-finals, top half:
Nadal vs Thiem: Other seeds—Djokovic, Mannarino
Dimitrov vs Goffin: Other seeds—Albert Ramos-Vinolas, Roberto Bautista Agut
Potential quarter-finals, bottom half:
Pouille vs Zverev: Other seeds—Schwartzman, Fognini
Cilic vs Carreno Busta: Other seeds—Raonic, Berdych
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