Monte Carlo Masters 2016 preview: Nadal and Wawrinka face uphill task to unseat Djokovic

Marianne Bevis looks ahead to the Monte Carlo Masters 2016, where Novak Djokovic is the defending champion

Novak Djokovic has taken a grip on men’s tennis that is almost unprecedented: a remarkable feat in itself, and all the more remarkable because the mighty Serb has become almost impregnable in a decade that hailed Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal as two of the greatest players ever to wield a tennis racket.

He comes into the most elegant of tennis seasons, the European clay, with a lead over of his rivals that almost defies belief: His 16,540 points are more than No2 Andy Murray and No3 Federer have together (15,510), and he has more than three times the points of No5 Nadal (14,865).

He also arrives on the clay of the town he calls home, Monte-Carlo, in the knowledge that he has overtaken Nadal in Masters titles, winning his 27th and 28th back to back in Indian Wells and Miami. Until the Serb came along, that infamous double was regarded as near-impossible: He has done it four times.

Since the start of last year, he has reached the final of 19 of his 21 tournaments and won 15 of them. That’s a 110-7 match run, with a 40-5 record over top-10 opposition. His only loss in 29 matches this year was down to an eye infection in Dubai—otherwise it has been seamless hard-court progress to a record sixth Australian Open, a record fifth Indian Wells and a record joint-sixth Miami.

Yet Djokovic has also proved formidable on clay. Here in Monte-Carlo, he has won two titles from four finals—two losses to Nadal, two wins over Nadal. Rome has been still more successful: four titles from six finals. Even in Madrid, which he has missed three times since it switched to clay in 2009, he beat Nadal in his 2011 title run.

Of course the one big title missing from Djokovic’s resume is clay’s biggest, the French Open, where he has six times been beaten by Nadal. Finally last year he beat Nadal in the quarters, only to come upon a red-hot Wawrinka in the final.

There, then, are the two men who feature large in Djokovic’s plans, the two who also happen to be the other Monte-Carlo champions in this year’s draw.

Can his old haunts boost Nadal’s confidence?

Nadal has dominated clay like few players have dominated any surface. The records speak for themselves: seven Rome Masters, eight in Barcelona, and a remarkable nine French Opens. And in this first clay Masters of the year, the story has been the same—or was until 2012 when he won the last of his eight consecutive Monte-Carlo crowns.

This year again, there remains a small question-mark alongside the mighty Spaniard’s name. It is understandable that he has struggled to beat Djokovic, as in two of the last three years—few have got the better of the defending champion in the last couple of years. But Nadal has suffered a few unusual clay losses to others. Certainly illness and injury in the latter stages of 2014 did not help. However his return to clay as defending champion in the Rio 500 last spring ended at the semi-final stage against Fabio Fognini, who also cut him short in the third round of Barcelona. This spring, he lost in Rio to the No45-ranked Pablo Cuevas and in Buenos Aires to Dominic Thiem.

He arrives in Monte-Carlo, then, without a title since Hamburg last summer, and is thus the focus of much interest as he searches for the aura he once had on his favourite surface.

And the draw gods might have been kinder to that campaign. Nadal could first face Lukas Rosol, a man who caused a stir by beating Nadal in the second round of Wimbledon in 2012. In two of their last three matches, Rosol has also won the first set, but this is their first clay match, so the story will surely be different. As [ill] fortune would have it, Thiem looms in the next round, with Wawrinka, who has beaten Nadal in three of their last five matches, including Rome last year, in the quarters.

Wawrinka: fire power plus clay credentials

And what of Wawrinka, the only other champion in the draw? He beat Federer to the title here in 2014, won a famous victory over Djokovic for the French Open title last year, and is also a former finalist in Madrid and Rome.

But he is drawn with Nadal in a packed quarter, with the prospect of Grigor Dimitrov, who beat the Swiss in Monte-Carlo in the third round last year, at the same stage of the tournament this year. Before that, Wawrinka could meet rising star Borna Coric, who he beat in the Chennai final this year but who is in the Marrakech final this weekend—or old campaigner Philipp Kohlschreiber.

Wawrinka may have two hard-court titles already this year, but the red stuff has yielded some of his best results: Very few on the tour can boast both a Grand Slam and a Masters title. Yet even without Djokovic in this half, it is a tough segment for him and Nadal, not to mention fellow seeds Thiem and Gilles Simon.

Can Federer hit the red stuff running?

No3 seed Federer drew Monte-Carlo’s short straw: He it is who falls into Djokovic’s half, though history shows that it is the other champions, Nadal and Wawrinka, who have denied him in all four previous finals here.

While many will be appraising the form of Nadal as the season heads towards the French Open, many will also be appraising Federer in his first competitive tournament since the Australian Open.

Having pulled out of Rotterdam, Dubai and Indian Wells following knee surgery, he then withdrew from Miami with a stomach virus. The up side of that is, he has spent many practice sessions on Monte-Carlo’s clay: The down side is that his mental and physical sharpness have gone untested for 10 weeks.

However, while he has often in his career come up against the clay buffer of Nadal, he too has a good clay record. Last year he won in Istanbul and made the final in Rome, and he has five times made the finals of the French Open, winning in 2009. Indeed Federer shares third place among active players with Djokovic and Tommy Robredo on 11 clay titles: Only Nadal, 47, and David Ferrer and Nicolas Almagro, each with 12, have more.

But he will have to hit the ground running after his layoff. First is either 37-ranked Thomaz Bellucci, whose four titles have all come on clay, or No38 Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, with three clay titles. Then comes Roberto Bautista Agut, who is close to a career-high ranking of 14, followed in the quarters by two notable Frenchmen.

No9 seed Richard Gasquet has twice beaten him on clay, perhaps most memorably as a teenager in a shock victory at this very event in 2005 in a final-set tie-breaker. The other Frenchman is Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who beat Federer at the French Open in 2013, had the Swiss against the wall in Monte-Carlo in 2014, and won their last match in the Toronto final.

Can Murray build on his 2015 clay success?

No2 seed Murray won his first two clay titles last year in Munich and Madrid, pushed Djokovic to the limit in the semis of the French Open in a tight five-setter, and ended 2015 with the tour-topping clay win-loss record, 17-1.

But the Briton has had an up-and-down year so far, beginning with a good final run in Australia, a month’s break on paternity leave, three winning days in Davis Cup, but just two matches won through the Indian Wells-Miami swing.

He faces varied challengers in the early stages of his clay campaign, first Rio finalist Guido Pella or a qualifier, and then possibly No36-ranked Joao Sousa, who has taken Murray to four sets in their last two meetings—including last year’s French Open.

The quarters bring either last year’s losing finalist Tomas Berdych or Milos Raonic, who took Murray to five sets in Australia.

Pretenders to the throne, young and old

· Ferrer has been a finalist at Roland Garros, Monte Carlo, Rome and Barcelona—though beaten every time by Nadal. However, his season thus far has yielded not even a final, and he not beaten Djokovic, in whose quarter he sits, since 2011. He has a tough section before that, too, with fast-rising star Sascha Zverev followed by in-form David Goffin as likely opponents.

· Berdych was losing finalist here last year, and has reached three clay Masters semi-finals and two further quarter-finals. With his usual consistency, the Czech has reached at least the quarters of all but one tournament this year.

· The fast-improving Thiem is one of the three clay champions during the “golden swing”, and Buenos Aires makes four clay titles in the space of a year.

· Goffin is at a career-high this week after back-to-back Masters semis, beating the Wawrinka, Marin Cilic and Simon along the way, and he is no slouch on clay. His main problem is a tough segment with Feliciano Lopez, then wild card Fernando Verdasco or this week’s Marrakech finalist Federico Delbonis.

· Also in the Goffin-Ferrer eighth are two quality teenagers playing one another for the first time, Zverev and Andrey Rublev. The former in particular is improving fast: Wins over Simon, Cilic and Dimitrov have taken him to the edge of the top 50.

· Raonic’s runs in the North American Masters suggest his form is returning with a vengeance. He was forced to retire against Berdych in the quarters here last year—the stage they could meet again this year—and he has a 4-2 head to head over the Czech.

Previous champions in draw:

Nadal (8 times), Djokovic (twice), Wawrinka (once)

Not playing: [NB this is not a compulsory Masters] Kei Nishikori, Marin Cilic, John Isner, Kevin Anderson, Nick Kyrgios, Bernard Tomic.

Wild Cards: Verdasco, Rublev, Lucas Pouille, Marco Cecchinato

[NB top eight seeds have a bye in Round 1]

No1 seed Djokovic quarter
R2, Jiri Vesely or Teymuraz Gabashvili
R3, first seed, No13 Gael Monfils
QF, No11 Goffin and No7 Ferrer are top seeds
SF, No3 Federer, No14 Bautista Agut, No9 Gasquet and No8 Tsonga are seeds

No3 seed Federer quarter
R2, Bellucci or Garcia-Lopez
R3, first seed, No14 Bautista Agut
QF, No9 Gasquet or No8 Tsonga are top seeds
SF, No1 Djokovic, No7 Ferrer, No11 Goffin and No13 Monfils are seeds

No4 seed Wawrinka quarter
R2, Coric or Kohlschreiber
R3, first seed, No15 Simon
QF, No5 Nadal or No12 Thiem are top seeds
SF, No2 Murray, No16 Paire, No10 Raonic and No6 Berdych are seeds

No2 seed Murray quarter
R2, Pella or qualifier
R3, first seed, No16 Paire
QF, No6 Berdych or No10 Raonic are top seeds
SF, No5 Nadal, No12 Thiem, No15 Simon and No4 Wawrinka are seeds

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