After a slow start to the preceding in Monte Carlo, things really pick up Thursday for third round play. All four matches on Court Central are finger-licking good, and outer court matches aren’t bad either.
World No. 1 Rafael Nadal’s path to a seventh straight Monte Carlo title takes him through Richard Gasquet. Nadal should be able to word it to Gasquet’s weaker backhand to come through. But I expect the French to put up a good fight. Gasquet did beat Roger Federer on this same court a number of years ago and he does have the game (read, a worthy backhand) to answer Nadal.
“[It] was just the first match on clay, so is important victory for me for sure, [to] start winning,” said Nadal after his 25th straight clay win. “Today was a positive start. I think I played better than what I practiced the last days, so that’s always positive. For sure was a good victory, I think.”
Said Gasquet on facing Nadal, “”I have nothing to lose against him, when Nadal plays on clay. I appreciate him very much as a person. But tomorrow I’m going to try to play a very good match. I’m happy now that I’m in the round of 16. Everything is going well for me because my ranking is better. With Nadal, we know what to expect.”
No. 2 seed Roger Federer, who is seeking his first Monte Carlo title, is up against Marin Cilic. The almost-forgotten Cilic has been play much better this season after a horrendous second half of 2010. Still, Federer looked pretty crisp in his win over Phil Kohlschreiber so I think we’ll see a similar result against Cilic who probably prefers other surfaces to clay.
After two long months, Andy Murray finally got back in the win column Wednesday defeating Radek Stepanek in straight sets.
“[I'm] feeling a lot better about tennis,” Murray said. “I mean, I played great. Dominated the match from the second, third game. Was a wee bit tentative towards the end, which I think is probably natural. I went for it, hit the ball really clean, wasn’t miss-hitting anything, moved really well, was really happy.
“I play well on clay. I think I can have good results on it if I play like I did today at the start. I’m going to try and keep that up. The more matches I play, the better my rhythm is going to get. I’m sure I can go deep in the big tournaments.”
Murray’s reward is the tough Frenchman Gilles Simon. Both guys play a similar, counter-punching style and each can feed off the pace of the opponent. So it will be interesting to see who makes the first move. I give a small edge to Murray. Sure, he’s playing horribly but sometimes all it takes is one win to get your confidence back. I think Murray got that today. And it doesn’t hurt that he’s 4-1 career against Simon.
“[Gilles is a] very tough player,” Murray added. “Doesn’t make many mistakes. I’ve played him a lot of times. He’s tough. If I play like I did today, good intensity, I give myself a good shot.”
Milos Raonic is the far-and-away the breakout star in 2011. Playing in his first red clay event, the Candian knocked out Michael Llodra and then Ernests Gulbis. Neither guy is a dirt phenom but you have give the 20-year-old credit. However, today in a rematch of an Australian encounter, he’ll meet an A-level claycourter in David Ferrer. Not only is Ferrer very comfortable on the red stuff, he’s also one of the best returners in the game and he’s beaten Raonic. So big edge to Ferrer, but I think it’ll be a tight match.
Gael Monfils, Tomas Berdych and Nicolas Almagro who plays Jurgen Melzer are among the other players in action on a busy Thursday.
As for results Wednesday, the only one that really stands out is just how badly Fernando Verdasco is playing. The 2010 Monte Carlo finalist haplessly lost to his countryman Tommy Robredo today 6-4, 6-3 for his fifth loss in six matches. And this defeat will send the lefty out of the Top 10 and one has to wonder if he will ever return.
On the season Verdasco did reach the San Jose final (losing to Raonic) but it’s April and he hasn’t beaten anyone in the Top 45 yet. In fact, he hasn’t beaten a Top 45 ranked guy since the US Open! Ouch. Sounds like someone who has clearly lost that edge.
Tennis Channel will again have complete coverage. About the only complaint I have is that the matches come on so early in the U.S. and by lunchtime the day is done.
THURSDAY MONTE CARLO SCHEDULE
COURT CENTRAL start 10:30 am
M Raonic (CAN) vs  D Ferrer (ESP)
Not Before 11:30 AM
 R Nadal (ESP) vs  R Gasquet (FRA)
Not Before 1:30 PM
 M Cilic (CRO) vs  R Federer (SUI)
 [WC] A Murray (GBR) vs  G Simon (FRA)
G Monfils (FRA) / J Tsonga (FRA) vs  M Fyrstenberg (POL) / M Matkowski (POL)
COURT DES PRINCES start 10:30 am
I Ljubicic (CRO) vs  [WC] T Berdych (CZE)
T Robredo (ESP) vs  V Troicki (SRB)
[Q] F Gil (POR) vs  G Monfils (FRA)
 J Melzer (AUT) vs  N Almagro (ESP)
Also Check Out:
Short On Confidence, Rafael Nadal Begins Clay Campaign In Monte Carlo [Video]
Del Potro Withdraws From Monte Carlo; Kyrgios, Gasquet Also Out
Djokovic Withdraws From Monte Carlo
Federer Reverses Monte Carlo Decision, Will Take On Nadal
Nadal Allows Verdasco 1 Game in Monte Carlo Final