The clay court season begins in earnest next week in Monte Carlo with the return of Rafael Nadal and world No. 1 Novak Djokovic.
While Rafa is again the big story of the clay season, the second biggest is Roger Federer who will be back on the dirt in a few weeks in Madrid after skipping Monte Carlo. Roger’s never won Monte (0-4 in finals) and after a busy March, he needs some extra rest. Plus, Monte is a loaded field with 15 of the Top 20 scheduled. After not playing on the stuff for a few years, you are going to want to be sharp as possible against that deep of a field.
Looking at the draw, there really are no easy roads. Though, at the, Rafa’s probably going to get a dozen here.
NOVAK DJOKOVIC QUARTER
As Djokovic tries to get back on track after a maddening March, the going will be tough on the clay. In his opener, the 2-time champ could face Phil Kohlschreiber, who just beat Djokovic last month, then a date with Diego Schwartzman with either Daniil Medvedev or Stefanos Tsitsipas next. I think the Greek is better on this surface, so I’ll take him to face Djokovic, but Novak gets through. JW Tsonga, who opens against lone American entrant Taylor Fritz, also lurks. He’s in the semifinals today in Morocco so good to see him healthy and getting back into form.
The Pick: Djokovic
DOMINIC THIEM QUARTER
Indian Wells champ Dominic Thiem has to like his chances at the first Masters clay stop. The Austrian looks to have a very friendly draw with his buddy David Goffin the only real threat before the quarters. And in the final eight, it should be Karen Khachanov who also has a nice road, though the Russian hasn’t been right since winning Paris at the end of 2018. So I’m going to lean with the Massu-led Thiem who should welcome a return to clay. It’s his best surface, he’ll have more seasoning with Massu and of course the confidence of that big win over Federer at Indian Wells.
The Pick: Thiem
ALEXANDER ZVEREV QUARTER
After crashing out of Marrakech, Alexander Zverev better start putting up some results, and fast. The German is set to defend a heap of points with Monte Carlo SF, titles in Madrid and Munich and a Rome final. If he falls early at all of them, he’ll drop out of the Top 7. So as far as ranking pressure, this is the most he’s faced in his young career. And when faced with pressure, he hasn’t lived up to the mark. And it’s going to tough in Monte. He could open against the new star and wildcard, Felix Auger-Aliassime, then clay veteran Fabio Fognini with, I think, Borna Coric, in the quarters. If Fognini doesn’t get him, I think Coric does, though the Croat will have his hands full with Hubert Hurkacz to start, then Nishikori who made the finals last year.
The Pick: Coric
RAFAEL NADAL QUARTER
The King of Clay will bid for a 12th Monte Carlo title – many players are lucky just to have 12 total titles in their career! And once again Rafa’s probably going to be the favorite in every clay match this spring, and deservedly so. If the knee is OK, which it appears is the case, he’s going to win here, but it shouldn’t be easy. He’ll have his countryman Roberto Bautista Agut, then hopefully Denis Shapovalov with Marin Cilic in the quarters. RBA is decent, though clay isn’t his best surface and same for Shapo. Maybe Grigor Dimitrov, who’s been having shoulder issues, emerges. But if Lucas Pouille or Stan Wawrinka, who square off in the opening round, can get out to the quarters, then that match could get a little trickier. Otherwise, I do think Rafa gets tested but he’ll roll in the end.
The Pick: Nadal
Thiem d Djokovic: He beat Roger at Indian Wells, so why not a struggling Djokovic on his favorite surface?
Nadal d Coric: Should be one-way traffic.
Nadal d Thiem: I don’t know what “12” slogan they’ll have for Rafa, but they’ll think of something I’m sure.
So it’s an interesting start to the clay season with many stories to follow. How’s Rafa’s knee? Is Djokovic right now? Can Zverev back-up his great 2018 campaign and is he still the best of the NextGen? Will Federer watch knowing he’ll have to face some of these guys on this surface next month?
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