Novak Djokovic made what I thought was a surprise decision by playing in Monte Carlo this week, just 10 days after suffering what looked to be a very scary injury to his ankle at Davis Cup. Since his return Djokovic has struggled losing the first set in both matches but eventually prevailing over Mikhail Youzhny on Wednesday and today Juan Monaco.
I haven’t seen both his wins in totality but the Serb just isn’t looking good and he isn’t looking comfortable. In fact today, the ankle looked worse than it did on Wednesday when he admitted it wasn’t 100%.
So why is he playing, risking further damage and missed time with Madrid/Rome ahead? I really don’t know. I know he lives in Monte Carlo but as I’ve said before the Prince would certainly understand if he needed to give his body a rest.
At any rate, Djokovic hobbles on and after a slew of upsets he’s now the very heavy favorite to make the finals, bad ankle or not. Tomorrow he gets Jarkko Nieminen who stunned Juan Martin Del Potro today and then he’s got the winner of Richard Gasquet and Fabio Fognini who, if I read it right, somehow knocked out Tomas Berdych (again in Monte Carlo!).
“It’s another big test obviously, again a two-hour match,” said Djokovic. “Obviously I’m not physically out there feeling my best. Somehow feels that I always miss that half a step. But I’m trying. I’m fighting. After I lost the first set today, I tried to find that inner strength. I found it again. So that’s a positive thing. Every day brings a new challenge and we’ll see what happens tomorrow.”
I have to give the veteran Nieminen a chance against Novak. And if the ankle doesn’t hold up I think the Finn, unlike Youzhny or Monaco, could finish the job like he did today, ousting Del Potro in a third set breaker.
“It’s always nice to challenge the top players in the world, if I can do it,” said Nieminen who snapped a 17-match losing skid to Top 10 players today. “Obviously, doesn’t matter how I play, it will be a big challenge. I obviously am enjoying the moment. Play centre court against him. I just try to keep up this good form.”
Speaking of good form, let’s talk about Rafael Nadal. Rafa has won eight straight titles in Monte Carlo and now 44 matches in a row after beating up on Phil Kohlshreiber 6-2, 6-4. With Djokovic ailing I just don’t see anyone who’s even going to push Rafa this week, and especially not his next opponent Grigor Dimitrov.
Grigor has fashioned his game after the great Roger Federer. And that’s quite novel of him to do. The problem is Roger was hapless against Nadal on the clay – you know, the forehand-to-backhand routine – so how’s Grigor, who doesn’t even have Fed’s backhand, going to do any better? He’s not.
“Really looking forward to that match tomorrow,” said Dimitrov who has ONE career Top 10 win. “Even for now I’m very excited. Hopefully I can perform at my best. It’s going to be a great match. I’m feeling quite good coming on court with [the top players]. I feel also physically I’m ready to kind of hang with them more as the match goes on.
“Why not do this thing on a regular basis, of course? I know tomorrow is another point of view, since clay court you’re playing against the greatest of all time. There’s that feeling and anxiety that you want to come out and do the best you can. I think most of all you have to keep a good composure.”
As much as I’d like to see Grigor give a game to Rafa, I don’t see that happening against Nadal who’s just going to hammer away at a lesser version of Federer. How fun.
“Now he’s the present and the future,” Nadal said of Grigor. “He’s able to play very well, very aggressive, very good technique. He’s a complete player.
“I have to try to be solid all the time and put him in not easy positions to attack the ball. Hopefully if that happens I will have my chances to go inside, no? I’m going to try to play a solid match with high intensity and we’ll see what he is doing.”
Elsewhere, my upset pick Stan Wawrinka came through in flying red and white today crushing Andy Murray 6-1, 6-2. Murray’s never taken a set from Stan in three matches now on dirt as the Scot tries to put a poor start to the clay season in the rearview.
“I need to make sure I get good practice in, that’s for sure, over the next two weeks,” said Murray who has never been in a clay final. “I played a lot of matches this year, obviously just not on the clay… The issue is, certain things I need to iron out in my game, things I need to work on.
“No one wants to lose matches like [today's]. But hopefully I can use it as motivation to improve because I need to do a lot of work. Sometimes you can squeeze through matches and not necessarily play well, [but] you don’t actually see what’s gone wrong because you’ve won the matches, so you think it’s okay. Obviously I’ll need to work really hard over the next sort of two weeks to get myself ready for Madrid.”
Wawrinka moves on to play Tsonga in arguably the best match of the day tomorrow. JW’s been playing awfully well this week, but I like Stan’s clay game to get the job done.
In the the other quarterfinal, it’s the surprising Fognini against Richard Gasquet who had a real good win over Marin Cilic. With all the upsets in the top half and Djokovic not at full strength, what an opportunity for Gasquet this week. An opportunity to win that is, not to choke.
As for the losers, it was a tough day for Del Potro who apparently struggled with a quad issue in the breaker when he inexplicably called the trainer. The Argentine was a late entry into Monte Carlo so perhaps it was worth the trip assuming the injury isn’t bad. Meanwhile, Berdych just mentally doesn’t seem to have it. A guy with his game shouldn’t be losing to Fognini 6-4, 6-2 in less than 80 minutes on any surface.
Tennis Channel continues its coverage Friday at 4:30am ET for you early birds.
FRIDAY MONTE CARLO SCHEDULE
COURT CENTRAL start 10:30 am
 J Tsonga (FRA) vs  S Wawrinka (SUI)
G Dimitrov (BUL) vs  R Nadal (ESP)
F Fognini (ITA) vs  R Gasquet (FRA)
 N Djokovic (SRB) vs J Nieminen (FIN)
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