As I was looking at the draw for Monte Carlo Masters, I couldn’t help but think the utter uselessness of the two big tournaments preceding it—Indian Wells and Miami. Normally, the Masters tournaments are pre-cursors to the major ones, and the momentum and success gained from the Masters should carry forward to a major (or the World Tour Finals). Unsurprisingly, Miami is more like an abrupt end-point. Novak Djokovic has withdrawn—and deservingly so—for the first tournament on clay and the great mental advantage he enjoyed over Rafael Nadal would probably not factor into equations in the clay, should Nadal manage a ridiculously remarkable feat of his seventh consecutive title at Monaco.
Withdrawal of Djokovic has brought back the old familiarity for the moment, though. Nadal and Roger Federer are yet again the top two seeds, two favorites to win the title, and are scheduled to meet in the final if they are to attest to their seeds. Lets see what will be coming in their march towards the fourth meeting in a final at Monte Carlo.
Rafael Nadal’s Quarter
It is not suprising that the top seed’s draw hardly looks menacing at all. This is clay after all—his own territory. The place where he didn’t lose a single match all through the 2010 season. The territory where he won a Masters and a Major without losing a set, and lost only one set each in the other two masters last year. The territory where he has whopped his other finalists with bagels and breadsticks. The territory where he has lost just six matches in the last six years.
He has a potential third round encounter with Richard Gasquet, and can meet any one of Jo Wilfried Tsonga, Ivan Ljubicic, Juan Monaco or Tomas Berdych in the quarters. Monaco, the South American, is more than a handful on this turf, but Berdych is no slouch either, having reached the semis in the big one last year. My bet would be Berdych, who did give Nadal a scare on the Miami asphalt, but this terracotta in a different prospect altogether.
With the form Nadal showed in Miami, his least preferred surface, not many can stop his surge on the surface of his choice. The one challenger who is his current Achilles heel, is out having a well deserved rest. And with that, we will have to wait to see if these two can repeat their epic clay battles of 2009.
Semifinalist: Rafael Nadal
Andy Murray’s Quarter
The scot is in a similar phase this year after losing the Aussie final to a red hot opponent. If he had watched the tapes of his two finals, he should feel no shame in losing to two very superior players in full flow, but then Murray rarely lets rationality get the better of his emotions. Parting off with the clay-expert Alex Corretja might not help his chances on the slowest clay court of the world.
The better bets here are Gael Monfils, a former semifinalist at Roland Garros but coming out of injury, and his compatriot Gilles Simon who is steadily rising up the rankings after embracing fatherhood. His first round match with the Brazilian Thomaz Bellucci can be a good match to watch out for.
Semifinalist: Gilles Simon
David Ferrer’s Quarter
The iron-man is the fourth seed here, and deservingly so. He is one man who has been relentless on his surface with his accomplishments on clay being overshadowed by the two icons of this generation.
The two names, though, which brought an initial “woo hoo!” moment for me were the defending finalist Fernando Verdasco, and the fast rising Milos Raonic. Verdasco openly challenged Raonic on clay after two back to back losses to the Canadian (although, he lost his first match on clay immediately after). Their presence in the same quarter brought me some hopes before realizing that they are in different octets, and Raonic has a tough prospect ahead. Starting directly with the serve-and-volley specialist Michael Llodra, he can face either one of Ernets Gulbis or Alexandr Dolgopolov, with David Ferrer waiting there after. This is not a surface of choice for the big serving youngster, and his performance here will give enough clue on how he will progress in the future.
For now, I would be hoping for a rematch between Dolgopolov and Ferrer. The last time they played quite a match on the dirt of Acapulco.
Semifinalist: David Ferrer.
Roger Federer’s Quarter
He doesn’t need to prove a point to anyone, neither does he need to justify his greatness, and yet every time he comes into play, we will keep monitoring his progress to look for more signs of his eventual decline, or a small light towards another resurge. Two years back, he took advantage of the red-hot rivalry between Nadal and Djokovic, and quietly picked up the last two biggies of the clay season, which provided him with further momentum later that year.
Will history repeat itself? The similarities were uncanny after those two played two long three setters in North America, but Djokovic’s withdrawal will stop that for a while. It will give him enough rest, and Nadal enough leverage to not over exhert himself initially during the season.
As much as we talk about Federer’s decline, he is still a ridiculous 52-1 against all players not in the top-4. He is on the decline, but that is not apparent to any one under his ranking. We will know whether this will change or not.
Semifinalist: Roger Federer
Semifinals: Nadal d. Simon, Ferrer d. Federer
Finals: Nadal d. Ferrer