As Monte-Carlo heralds in the two-month clay-fest, who can challenge Rafael Nadal?

Can anyone stop Rafael Nadal as the tennis tour heads onto the clay courts in the lead-up to summer?

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis
Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal in clay-court action Photo: Marianne Bevis

The first quarter of 2018 is done and dusted, a quarter during which tennis 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 in February to lap up the warm terracotta of South America’s “golden swing”, 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’s overture in Houston and Marrakech—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, three of them, and each is played in one of tennis’s most elegant settings. Madrid and Rome follow the historic 500 in Barcelona, but none is more glamorous than the first of them, at the Monte-Carlo Country Club on the flower-fringed terraces above the Mediterranean.

Who is missing in Monte-Carlo?

Monte-Carlo is the only Masters of the nine in the schedule that is not compulsory for the top 30 ranked players, and notable absentees by choice this year are five of the top six men in the Race to London: Roger 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, unless he takes a late wild card, the 2014 champion Stan Wawrinka.

But who makes a notable return to the Principality?

Novak 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.

Indeed only the greatest clay player of all, Rafael Nadal, has done better in this clay category. But there is a but…

Djokovic’s form so far this season is largely untested and unproven. He made the quarters in Australia, but then had a small surgical intervention on a long-troubling elbow, and lost his openers in both Indian Wells and Miami.

To add more uncertainty to the mix, he subsequently announced a parting of the ways with Andre Agassi and Radek Stepanek—after relatively short stints in his coaching team—and has been training again with former coach Marian Vajda for the clay swing. Will that help Djokovic back on track? If it could happen anywhere, then his adopted home of Monte-Carlo might be it.

Also back is David Goffin, who clearly struggled with his eyes during his only match since a freak accident in the Rotterdam semi-finals. He lost his Miami Masters opener, 6-0, 6-1, with eyes watering profusely.

Most of Goffin’s finals have come on hard courts, but he is often cited as a clay expert courtesy of early breakout runs on the red stuff, and he picked up some big scalps in Monte-Carlo last year: Dominic Thiem and Djokovic, before falling to Nadal in the semis.

Talking of Thiem, he returns from injury for the first time since retiring in the second round of Indian Wells, and loves the clay. He is one of those men who headed to South American in February, picking up the Buenos Aires title in the process.

Nadal targets history on beloved clay

But no-one loves the beautiful Monte-Carlo tournament more than the 10-time champion Nadal. The Spaniard has dominated this surface since winning his first Masters in Monaco 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. Indeed, in that year, he won eight clay titles

And it is possible that he could make history several times again before he is done with clay this year: He is going for 11 titles in Barcelona, Roland Garros—and back in Monte-Carlo.

Yes, the numbers when it comes to this Spaniard are jaw-dropping: 22 of his 30 Masters titles have come on clay; 53 of his 75 titles overall are on clay; and he will almost certainly pass 400 match-wins by the time he reaches Roland Garros. But should he fall short of 400, there may be more at stake than titles.

The battle for No1: Absent Federer pursues Nadal

When Federer took a late entry into the Rotterdam 500 back in February, it was with deliberate intent: If he reached the semi-finals, he could reclaim the No1 ranking five and a half years after he had last held it.

But his long unbeaten run from Hopman Cup through to the final of Indian Wells took their toll by the time he reached the defence of his Miami title, and the absent Nadal returned to the top without having played a point since Australia. Now Federer could return the favour, also without lifting his racket.

The Swiss, like last year, has opted out of the clay season, and thus has no points to defend until his return to grass. And he trails Nadal by only 100 points. That means the Spaniard has to defend Monte-Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid to stay at the top. Should he lose one match, Federer will overtake him, though Nadal could again claim the top spot with a good run in Rome, where he picked up only 180 points last year.

And all that could change again at Roland Garros. Hold on tight: it could be a bumpy ride through the rankings during this long clay swing.

The chasing pack

Even a clean sweep before the French Open cannot carry the chasing pack to the top. The cluster of Marin Cilic, Alexander Zverev, Grigor Dimitrov and del Potro—separated by only 515 points—remains adrift of Federer at No2 by more than three Masters and a 500 put together.

But so tightly packed are they that there is room for some significant shifts in ranking in the top 10, and all that quartet, plus Isner, now have Masters titles to their names.

Key among these is del Potro, who barely made the seedings at Wimbledon last year, was up to No12 by the start of this year, and with back-to-back titles in Acapulco and Indian Wells and a semi run in Miami, has risen to No6.

Indeed, in the Race, he trails Federer by fewer than a 1000 points. He does not play before Madrid, but could head the Race before Roland Garros—and even target a career-high, currently No4, by Wimbledon this year.

And can young stars build on hard-court advances?

Based on their first-quarter, hard-court performances, the younger generation is beginning to make its move against over-30s dominance.

Zverev, despite some up-and-down results this season, has maintained an impressive presence in the top five for six months, since winning the second of his two Masters titles. This year, he made a final run in Miami, and had a tough clay conversion in Davis Cup, where he beat David Ferrer before losing to Nadal. And if his big-hitting game looks more suited to hard courts, think again: He won both the Rome Masters and Munich on clay last season.

Borna Coric has bounced back from knee surgery 18 months ago to prove that his teenage success in finals in Marrakech and Chennai was no fluke. He is 14-4 this year, reached the semis in Indian Wells and quarters in Miami to reach a career-high 28.

Teenage star Denis Shapovalov has made some big runs in the last year, but largely on hard courts: He is just 1-1 on clay since progressing to the main tour, and this will be his first full season of direct entry into the big clay tournaments. So he has the opportunity to rise strongly if he puts together similar runs to his semi finish at the Montreal Masters, fourth round at the US Open (via qualifying), and another fourth round in Miami.

Both Kyle Edmund and Hyeon Chung made their first Major semis in Australia, and the Korean 21-year-old could prove to be the most successful of this band of players if he transfers his all-court speed, power and athleticism to the clay.

He has put together one of the best runs on the tour this spring, 18-7, not falling short of the quarter-finals at any event since his first in Brisbane. No wonder he is now among the top 20, and perhaps no wonder that he is regathering his strength for the next quarter by missing Monte-Carlo.

Monte-Carlo kicks things off with new name: Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters

Draw: 6.30pm, Friday 13 April, Atrium du Casino Monte-Carlo, with Rafael Nadal: A 56-man draw, including eight Round 1 byes, 16 seeds

Previous champions in draw: Nadal (10), Djokovic (2)

Previous finalists in draw: Albert Ramos-Vinolas, Tomas Berdych, Ferrer, Fernando Verdasco

Potential seeds not playing: Federer, del Potro, Anderson, Isner, Sam Querrey, Jack Sock

Other key absentees: Chung, Nick Kyrgios, Wawrinka, Murray, Tsonga, Monfils, Leonardo Mayer

Clay titlists this year in MC draw: Thiem (Buenos Aires), Diego Schwartzman (Rio), Fabio Fognini (Sao Paulo)

Davis Cup match-wins on clay last weekend: Lucas Pouille (2); Fognini (1); Nadal (2); Zverev (1); Ferrer (1); Cilic (2)

The clay calendar

w/b 9 April
ATP250 Houston
ATP 250 Marrakech

w/b 15 April
ATP1000 Monte-Carlo Masters

w/b 23 April
ATP500 Barcelona
ATP250 Budapest

w/b 30 April
ATP250 Munich
ATP250 Estoril
ATP250 Istanbul

w/b 6 May
ATP1000 Madrid Masters

w/b 13 May
ATP1000 Rome Masters

w/b 20 May
ATP250 Lyon
ATP250 Geneva

w/b 27 May
French Open, Paris

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