The first major clay tennis tournament of the season kicks off tomorrow at the breathtaking Monte Carlo Masters with the Top 6 players all in attendance. But given the surface, one really doesn’t have to go that deep to find a winner. That’s because it’s essentially a two-horse race between the King of Clay Rafael Nadal and defending champion Novak Djokovic.
And looking at the draw, it’s hard to see these two not battling in the final once again a week from Sunday.
Nadal’s draw puts him in some peril right away with the steady Gilles Simon or the improving Roger-Vasselin. In the third round Italian softballer Andreas Seppi could await, then in the quarters I think it will be David Ferrer who’ll outduel youngster Grigor Dimitrov. Not easy but not terribly difficult either for Rafa. Unless Grigor really catches fire or Simon plays 3-4 levels above his game, Nadal should get through to the semis without the loss of a set. Recall during his title run at Rio Nadal maybe wasn’t at his best on the clay, but perhaps that back had something to do with it.
After a post-Australian slump, Stan Wawrinka should feel more comfortable on his favorite surface. Stan, however, will be tested early by Marin Cilic then maybe Dominic Thiem who I think beats Houston semifinalist Nicolas Almagro. In the quarters, I like Stan to win a nervy affair with Milos Raonic to set up a rematch with Rafa. Though I really wonder if Stan makes it. Cilic could certainly upset him in the first match as could Raonic or possibly Tommy Robredo who would play the Canadian in the third round. So of the four quarters, this one is by far the most wide open but Stan really needs to play well here and get back on track.
Few players have been as much of a disappointment this year than JW Tsonga – it seems so long ago that he beat Roger Federer at the French last year. And in saying that, I don’t expect much from the Frenchman this week in Monte. So in the third quarter the clear favorite is Federer. The Swiss, who took a late wildcard to gain entry into this tournament he has never won, has a dicey draw with either Stepanek/Karlovic to start, then the unpredictable Jerzy Janowicz followed by Fabio Fognini the quarters. For me, Roger could lose any of those matches but I think he’ll ride his early season confidence and momentum to semis. If Federer stumbles, I think Fognini is the guy next in line.
In the last quarter, Djokovic opens his title defense against the flashy Benoit Paire who is just back from injury. Then a tricky third rounder with Kevin Anderson before the big clash with Tomas Berdych. Boris is back (uh oh!) but off his positive play from IW/Miami I think Novak will put together enough good tennis to beat Berdych to make the semifinals. And well worth noting in that quarter is a very tasty first rounder between Gulbis and Dolgopolov!
If it sounds too easy, too obvious to have the top four seeds reach the semifinals then it probably is. The question becomes, who’ll take the hit? More than likely it will be Stan and then maybe Federer. I still think we’ll see some bad patches from Djokovic here and there, but the clay will make it that much tougher for fast-court players like Anderson and Berdych to pull the upset. And the 8-time champ Nadal just isn’t going to lose early. In fact I don’t think he’ll lose at all.
In my final right now I have Djokovic and Rafa and the choice is clear, it’s Rafa.
Welcome to the clay.
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