• Nadal and Djokovic are top active players on clay according to ATP Performance Index
• Nadal goes for 12th title, Djokovic chases No3
• Only other M-C champion Stan Wawrinka in Nadal’s quarter
• Djokovic remains unchallenged as world No1
Its tanned courts 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 his own: Rafael Nadal.
An 11th title in Monte-Carlo last year set the tone, as it had done so many times before: Nadal went on to dominate his beloved clay with titles in Barcelona, Rome 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 11 Barcelona titles, the first of eight Rome Masters and the first of 11 French Opens.
Now up to 57 clay-court titles, the oldest champion in the tournament has a staggering 68-4 record in Monte-Carlo.
The Spaniard does face some early tests, make no mistake. Roberto Bautista Agut, who beat Djokovic in Miami, has been climbing up the ranks after a fine come-back to form this season, and just missed out on a seeding in Monte-Carlo. Nadal could face him or John Millman in his opener, followed by the charismatic Denis Shapovalov, the youngest man in the top 20, or the unseeded Grigor Dimitrov—though the struggling Bulgarian could find 22-year-old Matteo Berrettini a handful: the Italian won the Gstaad title last year.
More clay challengers lurk in a particularly tricky quarter. Marco Cecchinato has won three clay titles in the last year and made a big breakthrough to reach the semi-finals of the French Open last June. However, the Italian has the formidable prospect of either Stan Wawrinka—the only champion in the draw aside from Nadal and Djokovic—or Lucas Pouille in the second round, with Laslo Djere or Guido Pella in the third, both men with clay titles this year already.
As for possible semi-final opponents, Nadal could set a replay of last year’s final against Kei Nishikori, though successful clay players Alexander Zverev and Fabio Fognini are also here. It’s a loaded draw to negotiate if Nadal is to reach a final showdown with his great rival, Djokovic. And incidentally, in four previous meetings in Monte-Carlo, the two top seeds have shared the honours, 2-2.
Nadal may be the king of the red stuff with his 23 clay Masters titles, but Djokovic has more than proved his worth on this surface: eight of his 13 clay titles have come at Masters level, and if he wins his first match in Monte-Carlo, he will reach 200 clay match-wins.
And while his recent runs in the Principality have fallen short of his usual level—four match-wins in his last three appearances—he was last year just beginning the comeback from persistent elbow problems. Monte-Carlo might even be seen as the launch-pad to his remarkable run to two Majors, two Masters and the No1 ranking by year’s end.
He certainly feels at home in the intimate surrounds of the Monte-Carlo Country Club—he lives just down the road—so after relatively early exits in Indian Wells and Miami, he should begin his clay campaign fresh in mind and body.
Like Nadal, Djokovic will have to hit the ground running in a tricky top eighth that contains either Thanasi Kokkinakis or Philipp Kohlschreiber—who beat the Serb in Indian Wells—in his first match, then Kyle Edmund or Roland Garros quarter-finalist, Diego Schwartzman, or the returning Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who is into the semis in Marrakech this week.
The quarters could bring 2019 title-winners Daniil Medvedev, Radu Albot or Stefanos Tsitsipas, though none of those titles was on clay.
Perhaps Djokovic’s biggest test will come in the semis, where No4 seed Dominic Thiem will hope to get the better of David Goffin and Karen Khachanov. The Austrian has enjoyed plentiful success on clay, including his first Major final last year at Roland Garros (and he made the semis there in the previous two years). He has also made the final of the last two Madrid Masters, and the semis in Rome. Eight of his 12 titles have been won on clay, with six more clay finals in his resume.
Perhaps most significant, though, will be the confidence he brings to court after winning his first Masters title in Indian Wells. He has also claimed wins in his last two meetings over Djokovic, including Monte-Carlo last year—though of course the Serb has upped the stakes in the 12 months since then.
With a dozen 22-and-under players in the main draw before qualifiers are added, there is plenty of potential among this burgeoning young generation, many of whom have already proved their worth among top-flight opposition. Indeed five of them are seeded in Monte-Carlo. So who stands out?
· Alexander Zverev is No3 in the rankings, still only 21 years old, and has three Masters titles to his name—two of them on clay, one in Rome, the other in Madrid. He was also runner-up in Rome last year, and has twice won on Munich’s clay. A stand-out first match in Monte-Carlo, however, is a debut meeting with one of the break-out players of the year so far, 18-year-old Felix Auger-Aliassime, runner-up in Rio and semi-finalist in Miami.
· Borna Coric, age 22, won Marrakech in 2017, and twice last year scored wins over Roger Federer. Having undergone knee surgery late in 2016, he has bounced back admirably, went 40-20 last year, though he has a tough early draw in Monte-Carlo, including fellow 22-year-old, the in-form Hubert Hurkacz, in the first round and possibly Jaume Munar next.
· Munar, age 21 and up to 60 this week, beat Zverev in Marrakech, beat Fognini in Buenos Aires, and Cecchinato in Cordoba. That he comes from Nadal’s home of Mallorca has added to the excitement surrounding the young Spaniard.
· Tsitsipas, age 20 and inside the top 10 after a fine run to the semis at the Australian Open and a final finish in Dubai, announced himself as a serious clay contender by reaching the final in Barcelona last year. Now with two titles to his name—on hard courts—his inexorable rise will be tested back on clay, though this time enjoying direct entry rather than via qualifying. There are some dangers early on, in the shape of the unpredictable Jeremy Chardy and Mikhail Kukushkin, with Medvedev his possible first seed and Djokovic looming in the quarters. A test indeed.
· Shapovalov, still just 19, has yet to reach a tour final, but has shown himself a lover of the big stages. He is a three-time Masters semi-finalist, including on Madrid’s clay last year. That he has fallen into Nadal’s eighth will dampen any hopes of a deep run this week, however.
[NB this is the one Masters that is not obligatory for the top-ranked players]
No4 Federer, No7 Kevin Anderson, No9 Juan Martin del Potro, No10 John Isner, No19 Gael Monfils, No26 Richard Gasquet, No28 Pablo Carreno Busta
Previous champions in draw: Nadal (11), Djokovic (2), Wawrinka (1)
Previous finalists in draw: Kei Nishikori, Fernando Verdasco, Albert Ramos-Vinolas [in qualifying]
Clay titlists this year in draw: Londero (Cordoba) [in qualifying], Cecchinato (Buenos Aires), Djere (Rio), Pella (Sao Paulo)
The draw: 56-men, with eight Round 1 byes, 16 seeds
Potential quarter-finals, top half:
Djokovic vs Tsitsipas: Other seeds—Edmund, Medvedev; also here, Tsonga, Kohlschreiber
Thiem vs Khachanov: Other seeds—Goffin, Basilashvili; also here, Marton Fucsovics
Potential quarter-finals, bottom half:
Nishikori vs Zverev: Other seeds—Coric, Fognini; also here, Simon, Auger-Aliassime, Munar
Nadal vs Cilic: Other seeds—Cecchinato, Shapovalov; also here, Wawrinka, Dimitrov, Bautista Agut
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