Clay Preview: Nadal, Djokovic Lead Return Of Monte Carlo Masters
Monte Carlo is back! After missing 2020 due to the COVID-19 virus, the historic stop along the Mediterranean officially opens the men’s red clay season, and does so with a bang.
Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic head the pack that includes a youthful array of challengers including Daniil Medvedev, Alexander Zverev, Andrey Rublev and Stefanos Tsitsipas.
Among those not playing are Dominic Thiem, Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka. Wawrinka just underwent surgery, Federer is rebuilding his game while Thiem is taking a “break” after a poor post-US Open run (maybe some burn out?).
With Thiem out, the event’s champion will likely come down to Nadal, Djokovic and maybe Tsitsipas, Zverev or possibly Rublev. But in this COVID era, a lot can change and change quickly.
To the draw!
NOVAK DJOKOVIC QUARTER
It does often seem like Djokovic gets a good draw at these top level tournaments. Not this time. The World No. 1 could get an in-form Jannik Sinner in his second round opener (or former 2017 finalist Albert Ramos Vinolas), then Miami winner Hubert Hurkacz followed by Alexander Zverev in the quarters. Zverev is starting to find that long-awaited next gear, but could face the Italian Lorenzo Sonego in the second and David Goffin in the third. A Djokovic-Zverev match is intriguing but I’ll go with the 2-time Monte Carlo champion to win a sixth straight over the German.
The Pick: Novak Djokovic
STEFANOS TSITSIPAS QUARTER
Has Tsitsipas hit a ceiling? He seems to be languishing when he gets deep in tournaments. Last week, he had a clear path to the Miami title but fizzled out against Hurkacz. He went down in Acapulco final to Zverev in straights, then semifinal straight-set losses to Rublev in Rotterdam and Medvedev in Melbourne are part of that pattern. The Greek, though, has been rock-solid on clay, and he’ll need to be this upcoming week. It’s not an easy draw. He could clash the ultra-flashy Italian teen Lorenzo Musetti in his first match, then either Cristian Garin or the Uncle Toni-backed Felix Auger Aliassime. Maybe Matteo Berrettini in the quarters, or former finalist Gael Monfils or young Spaniard Alejandro Davidovich Fokina. Tsitsipas is the slight favorite in this quarter, but someone like Garin certainly could surprise. I’ll still go with Stefanos here.
The Pick: Stefanos Tsitsipas
RAFAEL NADAL QUARTER
After skipping Miami to further train on the clay, Rafael Nadal should be in prime form on his favorite surface. He’s only got 11 of these Monte Carlo titles, and my guess is that’s not enough for the Clay King. He wants more and he’s going to get more. The draw for Rafa is nice with Grigor Dimitrov (or Alexander Bublik) in the third and then Andrey Rublev in the quarters. On clay and at this Masters level, I think Rublev is maybe a year away. He’s the future, Nadal is the present.
The Pick: Rafael Nadal
DANIIL MEDVEDEV QUARTER
Why does Medvedev struggle on clay? Why has he never won a match at the French Open? All questions to be answered this spring. Medvedev will get better on this surface but this week isn’t it. I think the Russian could go out in his opener to the likes of a Nikolaz Basilashvili but I don’t think he’ll get past defending champion Fabio Fognini. I like the Italian there but then I’ll go with Diego Schwartzman to stop Fognini in the quarters. Pablo Carreno Busta and Karen Khachanov could also emerge. And there’s a good battle in the first round with the talented Holger Rune colliding with Casper Ruud.
The Pick: Diego Schwartzman
Djokovic d Tsitsipas: French rematch goes the Serb’s way again.
Nadal d Schwartzman: Maybe Diego gets a set…
Nadal d Djokovic: Even dozen for Nadal in Monte Carlo. Why not?
With Nadal now pressing 35, I think the days of him sweeping the clay tournaments are history. So he’s going to lose at least one, maybe two matches if he plays all three Masters (which might not happen). And maybe there really is a serious issue with the back, but I don’t think so right now. Regardless, be more than thrilled to whipping that forehand again on the red brick.
After his Australian Open title, Djokovic is now within two of Roger and Rafa. So if he can steal the French, he’ll likely go into 2022 with a share of the overall Grand Slam title leaderboard lead at worst. And if Rafa wins another Roland Garris, he goes up by three to 21, then it gets tricky for the Serb as even his window of opportunity is starting to close.
So it’s an important clay season for both these guys, virus-willing — things are tenuous in Paris right now.
And we have quite the youth movement underway with recent success of Sinner, Hurkacz, Auger-Aliassime and Emil Ruusuvuori. We’ll get a good look at Rune, Davidovich Fokina and Musetti in Monte Carlo plus Spanish teen Carlos Alcaraz, who we’ll see at the Masters level in Madrid and America’s best hope Sebastian Korda.
There’s a lot to like looking ahead. Let’s hope it plays out.
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