Monte-Carlo Masters 2021: Nadal goes for No12 – but Djokovic pursues own records

Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are drawn to meet for record 57th time; Djokovic won their last Monte-Carlo match

Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal (Photo: Marianne Bevis)

It is one of the oldest and most glamorous tennis venues in the calendar—more than 110 years and counting. And the self-styled “Gem of the Mediterranean” affords a backdrop like no other.

Its tanned courts overlook the sea 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.

Nadal the record-maker

An 11th title in Monte-Carlo in 2018 set the tone, as it had done so many times before.

Indeed a career-long dominance on the red stuff began at this club, where he won his first Masters titles as a teenager in 2005. That year he went on to win the first of 11 Barcelona titles, the first of nine Rome Masters and the first of 13 French Opens.

Now up to 60 clay titles in total, the 34-year-old Nadal is up to a staggering 71-5 record in Monte-Carlo, where he will attempt to win his 12th title in a week’s time.

The tournament has one of its best line-ups in years, for even though this is the one Masters event that is not compulsory for the top players, all but one of the 16 seeds is ranked in the top 20—the one being Gael Monfils, who withdrew with injury this weekend. Other key absentees are No4 and clay aficionado, Dominic Thiem, and four-time finalist, world No7 Roger Federer.

And while Nadal has been displaced as world No2 by Daniil Medvedev, the Spaniard has been drawn into the bottom half, leaving the prospect of a record 57th meeting with his great rival and former Monte-Carlo champion, world No1 Novak Djokovic.

Dominant Djokovic

Like Nadal, Djokovic is competing for the first time since the Australian Open, where he won a ninth title, his 18th Major. Two weeks later, he claimed Federer’s record for the most weeks at world No1, and he will continue to extend that record through Monte-Carlo and beyond.

And it is entirely possible that he will extend other records in Monaco, too. He currently tops the list of Masters titles with 36 over Nadal’s 35. He has also reached more Masters finals than Nadal, 52 compared with 51. No two men have played one another more often than these, and while Nadal has certainly held the upper hand between them on clay, it should not be forgotten that Djokovic has, at some point, beaten the Spaniard at all three clay Masters and at Roland Garros. And he has twice beaten Nadal in Monte-Carlo, both times going on to win the title.

Another feature in Djokovic’s favour is that the Serb lives in Monte-Carlo, and is more than familiar with his local Club. That he has rested since going 9-0 in Australia in February should also bring plenty of mental and physical energy to an event where he has won just six matches in his last four appearances.

He does face an early challenge from teenage star Jannik Sinner—if the Italian beats Marbella semi-finalist Albert Ramos-Vinolas—or No13 seed Hubert Hurkacz, though those two men came through an exhausting draw to contest the title at the Miami Masters just a week ago. The transition from hard to clay, and in that short timescale, will be testing.

Nadal versus the Russians

Nadal can reclaim the No2 ranking from Medvedev if he reaches the final and the Russian does not make the semis, or lifts the trophy and the Russian does not reach the final. But the Spaniard may find himself facing two of the form players of the last six months in two outstanding Russians.

Not only is he in Medvedev’s half—and the Russian is a three-time Masters champion and a semi-finalist at the last playing of the Monte-Carlo Masters—but he is in Andrey Rublev’s quarter. The No6 seed has won more matches in 2021 than anyone else, and his four consecutive ATP500 titles, including Rotterdam this spring, are only half the story.

Rublev’s 20 wins this season have come courtesy of a quarter-final at the Australian Open, victory with Medvedev in the ATP Cup, and a run of semis in Doha, Dubai and Miami.

Medvedev, however, has one of the most formidable quarters in the draw: first 36-ranked Filip Krajinovic or the 37-ranked Doha champion Nikoloz Basilashvili, with his first seed coming in the shape of defending champion Fabio Fognini, and either Marbella champion Pablo Carreno Busta or Buenos Aires champion Diego Schwartzman in the quarters.

More pretenders to the throne

With 17 23-and-under players in the main draw, there is plenty of potential among this burgeoning young generation, many of whom have already proved their worth against top-flight opposition: Rublev, along with Stefanos Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev, are all in the top eight.

Three more are teenagers, and the best of them thus far, Sinner, started 2021 with the Great Ocean Road title in Melbourne, and then made that stand-out run to the Miami final.

Wild card Lorenzo Musetti reached his first ATP500 semi-final in Acapulco but faces another high-flying Russian, Aslan Karatsev, in the first round, in what is a tough segment of the draw topped by Tsitsipas that also includes an unseeded Felix Auger-Aliassime, who will have Nadal’s uncle and near life-long coach, Toni, in his box.

And another intriguing first-round match features junior No1, 17-year-old Holger Rune, who made the Santiago quarter-finals as a qualifier earlier this year, and has been training with Djokovic this week. He faces 22-year-old Casper Ruud, another former No1 junior.

Previous champions in draw: Nadal (11), Djokovic (2), Fognini (1)

Previous finalists in draw: Dusan Lajovic, Ramos-Vinolas

Top-20 players missing in Monte-Carlo: No4 Thiem, No7 Federer, No12 Denis Shapovalov, No13 Monfils, No19 Milos Raonic, No20 Stan Wawrinka

2021 clay titlists in draw: Schwartzman (Buenos Aires), Cristian Garin (Santiago), Carreno Busta (Marbella), Lorenzo Sonego (Cagliari)

Potential quarter-finals, top half

Djokovic vs Zverev: Other seeds—Hurkacz, David Goffin; also here, Sinner, Lajovic, Sonego

Tsitsipas vs Berrettini: Other seeds—Garin; also here, Alex de Minaur, Karatsev, Musetti, Auger-Aliassime

Potential quarter-finals, bottom half

Nadal vs Rublev: Other seeds—Roberto Bautista Agut, Grigor Dimitrov; also here, Alexander Bublik

Medvedev vs Schwartzman: Other seeds—Carreno Busta, Fognini; also here, Karen Khachanov, Basilashvili, Ruud,

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