The first big event of the clay season begins today in Monte Carlo, Monaco. The Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters had been dominated for years by Rafael Nadal before Novak Djokovic finally ended the Spaniard’s streak at 46 wins and eight titles in last year’s final. These two are the top two seeds with the top four rounded off by Swiss duo Stanislas Wawrinka and Roger Federer.
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Last year’s final was the first loss for Nadal since 2003 where he was defeated by losing finalist Guillermo Coria. Although a disappointment, it mattered little in the grand scheme of things for Nadal who had one of the best seasons of his career as well as adding another French Open title to his long list of achievements. As with any clay tournament he enters, Nadal goes into the event as favourite.
He is projected to play David Ferrer in the quarter finals and there seems little to trouble him prior to this. Gilles Simon or a qualifier that includes the likes of Albert Montanes and Pablo Carreno Busta will be up in round one. Low on matches, Simon entered Casablanca as a qualifier but was a first round loser. 13th seed Mikhail Youzhny could meet him in round three if he makes it that far and he has a decent record against Nadal – 4-10 although he is 0-3 on clay, the most recent a loss in Madrid last year. The Russian is 4-0 against opening round opponent Andreas Seppi while Pablo Andujar lost twice to Youzhny on clay last year. Andujar could meet Youzhny in round two if he sees off Edouard Roger Vasselin.
Marcel Granollers made the Casablanca final and will look to carry on his run of form but was unfortunate in drawing Grigor Dimitrov in round one. The Bulgarian has looked impressive this year while prior to his run to the final, Granollers was 1-4 on clay. Ferrer was shocked by Alexander Dolgopolov last time he played on clay and could be troubled by a similarly dangerous player in Dimitrov if he is off his game. Ferrer does lead the head to head 3-1 but they met just once last year, Dimitrov winning the Stockholm final in 3 sets indoors.
Stanislas Wawrinka looks to have struggled with the expectations of becoming a slam champ and almost helped Switzerland lose what seemed a straight forward quarter final tie on paper. He would lose to Andrey Golubev and go a set down to Mikhail Kukushin before the Swiss eventually won a live fifth rubber. The top half of his quarter contains a number of players who can take advantage if Wawrinka remains off his game. Fernando Verdasco is into the final of Houston which may work against him and Marin Cilic is far from an easy opener for the Spaniard. It will be their tenth meeting but they have never played on clay. Verdasco will be playing Nicolas Almagro in that final and could face him once more in round three if they make it that far. Wawrinka is 7-3 against Almagro but has a losing record against Verdasco.
Tommy Robredo is 6-2 against the Swiss but lost their most recent meeting at the Australian Open. He did however win their last clay match on his way to the Casablanca title last year. Milos Raonic rounds off the seeds in the top half of the draw and will begin against most likely Federico Delbonis. Delbonis faces Yen Hsun-Lu in round one who is a virtual bye on this surface. Raonic won a final set tiebreak against Robredo in their only meeting so far, last year in Barcelona.
Richard Gasquet’s withdrawal has provided an opportunity for Jo-Wilfried Tsonga who moves into his fellow Frenchman’s second round spot, gaining the first round bye. Tsonga has been far from his best and was shocked by Peter Gojowczyk in Davis Cup play last week. He is 6-1 against likely second round opponent Philipp Kohlshcreiber, the German first needing to defeat odd wildcard choice Simone Bolelli. Eyes will be on Fabio Fognini this clay season after the Italian’s improvements over the past year. While not of the same quality, he is rivalling Rafael Nadal for wins on the surface in the past year. Big things are expected and he made very easy work of Andy Murray in Naples last week in Davis Cup. A second round clash with Roberto Bautista-Agut looks appealing on paper although the Spaniard’s success has mainly come on hard courts so far in his career.
Roger Federer should have a straight forward time in making it to the quarter finals - Radek Stepanek and Ivo Karlovic are much more at home on faster surfaces while Jerzy Janowicz is still trying to find form after returning from injuries. The Pole lost both matches in Davis Cup action including one against talented youngster Borna Coric and would later blast the press for creating unrealistic expectations in Poland. Federer and Janowicz met in Rome last year with the Swiss winning in straights although he showed he was capable of troubling the top 10 after defeating Gasquet and Tsonga prior to the quarter final loss. Federer will be hoping for a much better time of it against Tsonga should they meet at the quarter final stage – the Frenchman dished out a comprehensive beating in straight sets at Roland Garros last year.
Hoping to defend his surprise title from last year, Novak Djokovic begins against either a qualifier or Benoit Paire in his quest for a third Masters 1000 title of the year. Paire remains as inconsistent as ever and will be disappointed to have departed early in Casablanca to Guillermo Garcia Lopez. His fellow Frenchman Gael Monfils has a chance of taking the Serbian out if at his best but his form tailed off a bit after starting the season with only losses to Rafael Nadal in his first three tournaments of the year. 14th seed Kevin Anderson is there for the taking in round one for Monfils and looks the most vulnerable of the 16 seeds in the tournament alongside Alexander Dolgopolov.
Dolgopolov takes on Ernests Gulbis in the popcorn match of round one with a strong chance of round three for the winner given either Monegasque wildcard Benjamin Balleret or Guillermo Garcia-Lopez await in round two. Both Gulbis and Dolgopolov look far more composed this year and it shows in their results. Dolgopolov in particular impressed on the clay with emphatic wins over Fognini and Ferrer on his way to the final of Rio. Should Tomas Berdych meet Dolgopolov for the second tournament running in round three, it will be their first meeting on clay but fifth in total with the Czech winning all four to date. Berdych’s head to head with Novak Djokovic makes for ugly reading but he was a winner in their last clay meeting – coming from a set down to win in Rome. Berdych is more than capable but Djokovic will be fired up as he looks to make an early statement to begin the European clay season.
SF: Rafael Nadal def. Stanislas Wawrinka
SF: Novak Djokovic def. Fabio Fognini
F: Novak Djokovic def. Rafael Nadal
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