Monte-Carlo Masters 2021: Former champs Djokovic, Nadal, Fognini cruise to Round 3

“Very smart player” Dan Evans beats Miami champ Hurkacz for first-time Djokovic test

Dan Evans
Dan Evans (Photo: Marianne Bevis)

The sun was out, and the big guns were out, too, in Monte-Carlo.

All three former champions in the draw were in action on the magnificent terraces of this historic tennis club. And after the withdrawal of world No2, Daniil Medvedev following a positive Covid test, five of the next six seeds would be opening their accounts.

First up was 23-year-old Andrey Rublev, one of the form players since the resumption of the tour last August: four straight ATP500 titles, three consecutive Major quarter-finals, and a 20-4 run in 2021 thus far.

He took on qualifier Salvatore Caruso, and needed only 68 minutes to win his first clay match of the year, 6-3, 6-2. In typically modest style, the young Russian assessed his performance:

“I am happy with my game for the first match of the clay season. I was a little bit tight because obviously I didn’t practise a lot on clay… Caruso was playing [from] qualifying, so he was used to the clay already. I am really happy that I could win in straight sets.”

Meanwhile, the defending champion and local favourite, Fabio Fognini, was also advancing to the third round in swift order, 80 minutes against Jordan Thompson, 6-3, 6-3. He will next play Filip Krajinovic.

But the biggest names would fill the mid-afternoon schedule on centre court. World No1 and two-time Monte-Carlo champion, Novak Djokovic, took on the new big name on the block, 19-year-old Jannik Sinner. The Italian teenager was this week up to a career-high 22 after winning the Great Ocean Road Open in Melbourne and reaching the final of the Miami Masters last week.

Djokovic, for his part, had taken the record for weeks at No1 since winning his ninth Australian Open, making a 9-0 start to 2021. He had not played since, recharging his batteries, and working himself into pitch-perfect clay form ahead of the two-month, points-rich swing on the red stuff.

There were clearly some nerves for the teenage Italian in the early goings, and his opening service game went to repeated deuces as his first serve hovered at a scant 50 percent. He finally held, and then ramped up the pace and corner-finding accuracy to work a break point with a backhand winner.

The Djokovic serve was up to that challenge, but then faced another, and this time, Sinner got the break via a forced volley error from the world No1. But the advantage did not last long: Djokovic broke straight back, with Sinner rushed into a couple of errors.

He faced two more break points in the sixth game with some punishing rallies on both sides, and each man forcing to the lines and angles. But for all the zip and variety from Sinner, Djokovic came up with a little more, throwing in some deft drop shots, plus the occasional volley winner. It may have been the Serb’s first match on clay this year, but his familiarity with this surface, and this Club—just down the road from his home base—was clear for all to see.

The young Italian had to battle through more than eight minutes to hold his next service game, but then faced the formidable accuracy of the Djokovic serve to try and save the set. But completely unfazed by the occasion, Sinner did break, only to face break points—this time set points—once again. And Djokovic thumped the ball to the lines to draw one final error, 6-4.

Sinner was up against it in the fourth game of the second set, too, swung mercilessly from corner to corner by Djokovic to work two break points, and another draining rally drew an Italian error for a 3-1 lead. Serving to stay in the match at 2-5, Sinner fended off two match points, but double faulted on the third: Djokovic won his 10th match of the year—and certainly not looking as though he had been away for seven weeks.

Two champions seamlessly through, then, and now it was the turn of the greatest of them, 11-time champion Rafael Nadal.

Like Djokovic, Nadal was competing for the first time since the Australian Open—indeed the Spaniard had played only five matches this season, losing in the quarters in Melbourne. Nadal took a 71-5 Monte-Carlo record into his match against qualifier Federico Delbonis, and a 4-0 winning record, 9-0 in sets, against the Argentine.

Not since 2004, when Nadal was 18 years old, had the Spaniard lost on clay to a player ranked as low as Delbonis’s 87—and he was not about to do so now. Two breaks in the half-hour opening set took the lead, 6-1, and after a break on either side, Nadal swept to through the set, 6-2.

Nadal next plays No14 seed Grigor Dimitrov, who beat Jeremy Chardy, 7-6(3), 6-3. Dimitrov’s only win in 14 previous matches came almost five years ago.

There was something of an upset among the high seeds when No7 Diego Schwartzman bowed out to 22-year-old Casper Ruud, 6-3, 6-3, the fast-rising Norwegian ranked at a career-high 27.

But arguably a bigger upset came in the shape of the Miami Masters champion and No13 seed, Hubert Hurkacz, though he looked decidedly under the weather as the match against Briton Dan Evans progressed. The first set was close, with some fine rallies, before Evans broke for the first set, 6-4.

Hurkacz walked very slowly back to his chair, his face pale, his head bowed. The Pole continued, but errors poured from his racket, Evans broke three times, and the Briton took his second big win in as many days, 6-1, after 64 minutes.

Evans began the year on a high, up to 26 in the world after winning his career-first title at the Murray River Open, and while things had not gone well during the rest of the hard-court season, he had cause for celebration in Monte-Carlo with his first tour-level victory on clay in four years, beating the 2019 runner-up, Dusan Lajovic, in a three-set thriller.

But while the Briton has looked more than comfortable on these clay courts, it has earned him one of the biggest challenges in tennis: a first-time meeting with Djokovic. And the world No1 had clearly done some scouting already, and sounded like a fan of the Evans’s game:

“Very smart player… He moves great. Very, very dynamic, explosive player. Great forehand, good serve. He comes to the net. He uses his slice very well. The variety in his game I think is something that I would probably point out as something that makes him probably dangerous on any surface…

“Obviously every time you face someone for the first time, probably I’m going to have to use a little bit more analysis of his game prior to tomorrow’s match, talk to few people and my coach as well, try to prepare myself as best as I can.”

It is some complement when the world’s best hands out such praise. It will be up to Evans to use his multitude of skills to his advantage.

There were also wins for No 11 seed David Goffin over Marco Cecchinato, 6-4 6-0, and for No9 seed Roberto Bautista Agut, who beat Tommy Paul, 6-3, 6-4. The Spaniard is next in line for Rublev.

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