After five relatively calm, uneventful days at our first big clay test of the season, the Monte Carlo Tennis Masters was thrust into absolute chaos on Friday. The highlight of course was reigning King of Clay and 8-time champion Rafael Nadal’s shocking loss to 32-year-old David Ferrer in no less than two sets.
Behind a bounty of errors (41 all told) from Rafa, Ferrer knocked down Nadal 7-6, 6-4 to end a 17-match losing streak to his countryman on the dirt.
“Losing hurts everywhere. On clay always a little bit more,” said Nadal. “I am not happy today about what I did. Not very happy about the way that I played the second set after losing the first. I didn’t play with the right intensity at the beginning of the second. I give him big opportunity at the beginning of the second. I cannot do that.”
For whatever the reasons – back, knee, age, confidence – Nadal just hasn’t been the same player he was last summer. Fortunately, he still has plenty of time to get things right before Paris. Because he’ll need to. That aura of invincibility is slowly starting to fade.
If that wasn’t enough drama, Roger Federer then had to go the distance to beat JW Tsonga 2-6, 7-6(6), 6-1. The Frenchman never had a matchpoint but things were very much on edge late in the second set as Federer failed and failed again to break Tsonga (he finished an appalling 2/19 on break points conversions). Roger toughed through the breaker and then ran over a dejected Tsonga in the decider.
“I was down 6-5, 0/30,” said Federer of his second set hole. “It was a tough point at 15-30 as far as I remember with a half volley backhand defense kind of thing. It wasn’t looking good there. Clearly was quite frustrating for a long period of time, missing all those break points. Now, looking back, I can take also some positives out of the match. It was just many things went wrong at the wrong time for me: Jo playing well, me playing wrong at certain times, wrong shot selections. It was a tough day at the office. I’m happy I found the way to tough it out.”
Surging defending champion Novak Djokovic was thought to be the man to restore order, but he too was under the gun. Recent Casablanca champ Guillermo Garcia-Lopez blitzed the Serb in the first set and just a missed backhand winner that would given him a break lead in the second.
After that it was all Novak who won 4-6, 6-3, 6-1. “I changed the tactics in the middle of the second set and I managed to regroup and find the right approach,” said Djokovic. “After that it was a great performance.”
So the semis are set. It’s Ferrer v Wawrinka and then Federer and Djokovic.
David Ferrer v Stan Wawrinka
After a big win like Ferrer’s over Nadal, it’s common for players to let down. But that’s not David Ferrer’s M.O. His plans don’t change.
This is a tough, close matchup. There’s not much to choose between the two. And the head-to-head bears that out. Ferrer leads 7-5 (5-2 on clay) but Stan’s won the last two including on the clay last year in Portugal.
“It’s going to be a tough match, sure,” said Ferrer. “Stan is playing unbelievable this season with a lot of power in his shots. I have to play similar like today or yesterday to have a chance.”
“No chance?” That’s some hyperbole. But I like Ferrer here. Stan seems to have found some form again and as David says he has the clear edge in firepower. But overall I think Ferrer is just the better player on clay and at this moment. And he’s got to have the confidence after beating Rafa and also Grigor Dimitrov a round earlier.
That said, if Wawrinka comes out cracking his serve and ripping that backhand, then Ferrer could be in for a long day. Still…
The pick: Ferrer in three
Roger Federer v Novak Djokovic
In the main event, Federer and Djokovic meet for the 34th time having already split two clashes this season. Federer won in Dubai while Novak got him back in that Indian Wells thriller.
Federer leads 17-16 but because of the 6-year age gap Novak’s going to pass him, and Saturday I think he catches him.
Right now Djokovic is the better player and the better guy on clay. There’s little debate on that. And with Nadal out, this adds to the importance of the match. A title this weekend for Novak really puts him in position for the top ranking if not before the French then at the French.
And for Federer, no Nadal means a never-better chance to win his first Monte Carlo.
But today showed me that Federer is again struggling on pressure points against the big guys on clay. We’ve seen him have similar issues against Nadal in Paris (oh, those missed chances) and it nearly bit him today. In fact it should have but Tsonga let him off the hook. That’s something I don’t think Djokovic will do.
However, Djokovic is beatable. After running 24 of 26 games in his first two rounds, he had one of those “bad patches” against G-Lo and he very nearly didn’t make it through. But like Federer, he fought past it, so tomorrow should be a great match.
“[Federer] has been playing really good tennis in the last couple of months… much better than he did all of last season,” said Djokovic. “I’m going to have to be on top of my game.”
If Roger is to win, he’ll have to serve great, covert break chances, press off the forehand and play well off the backhand. I wouldn’t advise coming in much, not against Novak on clay, and take advantage should the Serb fall into one of those familiar funks.
“The confidence is there,” Federer said today. “I played well from the baseline. My serve was consistent. I’m very happy that I have this foundation for my game. Sometimes you feel you have no foundation.”
For Djokovic, if he serves good and hits that backhand-down-the-line (for him it’s the barometer of how well he’s playing), then he’ll advance. And I think that’s what happens.
But what an opportunity for both: winning a clay Tennis Masters without having to beat Rafa!
The pick: Djokovic in two
Tennis Channel will have live coverage starting at 730am ET.
MONTE CARLO SATURDAY SEMIFINAL SCHEDULE
COURT CENTRAL start 11:00 am
 I Dodig (CRO) / M Melo (BRA) vs M Mirnyi (BLR) / M Youzhny (RUS)
Not Before 1:30 pm
 D Ferrer (ESP) vs  S Wawrinka (SUI)
Not Before 3:00 pm
 [WC] R Federer (SUI) vs  N Djokovic (SRB)
 B Bryan (USA) / M Bryan (USA) vs  D Nestor (CAN) / N Zimonjic (SRB)
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