The European clay court season begins on Sunday with the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters. Stanislas Wawrinka, who defeated Roger Federer in the final last year, looks to defend his title but will have a tough ask as seventh seed. Kei Nishikori and Andy Murray will be absent from this event, ensuring the currently ranked No.5 Rafael Nadal a top 4 seeding.
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Novak Djokovic looks for his 23rd Masters 1000 title and 6th on clay at this event, hoping to repeat his 2013 title run. He opens against a qualifier or Nicolas Almagro, who has a 7-4 clay record in 2015 and has made at least the quarter final in three of his four events. Qualifiers hoping to avoid this place in the draw include Diego Schwartzman, Robin Haase and Benoit Paire. Djokovic will be looking to make his mark on this tournament as a statement of intent as he works towards gaining that elusive French Open trophy in June.
With just a 2-8 tour record in since the beginning of 2013 on clay, it’s fair to say that the surface isn’t Bernard Tomic’s favourite. Lukas Rosol, a three times ATP finalist on the surface, should advance to the next round for a likely meeting with Ernests Gulbis even though the Latvian is struggling for form. Reports suggest that he has added former World No.4 Thomas Enqvist to his coaching setup.
11th seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga faces a tough ask in only his third match of the year, taking on the in-form Sam Querrey. Querrey is a finalist in Houston, picking up impressive wins over Feliciano Lopez and Fernando Verdasco along the way. Tsonga is 2-1 against Querrey although they are yet to meet on clay. The winner of this clash will face either David Goffin or a qualifier.
Making his first appearance on the ATP Tour since March last year, Florian Mayer will face Mikhail Youzhny. With injuries keeping him out for the year, he is currently unranked and has used his protected ranking to enter the tournament. Mayer is 5-3 against Youzhny, but it would be a major ask to pull off a win after such a long lay off. Marin Cilic awaits the winner and should fancy his chances of tying the head to head up at 5-5 if he plays Youzhny as expected. If they meet as projected in the quarter finals, Cilic will be looking to win his first match against Djokovic at the twelfth time of asking.
Given his drop outside the top two, Rafael Nadal is vulnerable to the draw putting him up against Novak Djokovic before the final and this is just what has happened here with a 42nd Djokovic-Nadal ATP match on the cards in the semis. A series of surprising losses throughout the year so far, most recently to Fernando Verdasco in Miami, has yet again cast doubt upon Nadal’s long term place on the tour but given the way he continues to bounce back it would be foolish to write him off just yet. Assuming the Austrian makes it past wildcard Lucas Pouille, Nadal will fancy his chances of breaking down Dominic Thiem’s one handed backhand.
One of just three players to win two sets against Nadal at Roland Garros, John Isner could face the Spaniard in round three but he will have to make it past fellow American Steve Johnson. Martin Klizan, a finalist in Casablanca, is a possible second round opponent although he is 1-3 against Viktor Troicki but none of the meetings have been on clay.
It was David Ferrer that ensured Nadal would go two years without winning the title here after his long period of dominance with a surprisingly straight forward 7-6 6-4 victory in the quarter finals. Given Nadal’s struggles, Ferrer will fancy his chances for a repeat. He will first have to make his way past either Simone Bolelli or Victor Estrella Burgos. With a qualifier and Monegasque wildcard Benjamin Balleret between him and Ferrer, Gilles Simon should have no issues with making the third round. With just two wins in eight ATP matches, Simon will have his work cut out against a player he has never won a set on clay against.
With Nadal and Djokovic both in the top half, there is a great opportunity on offer for the top players in the bottom half of the draw. As fourth seed, Milos Raonic would be projected to make the semi finals but he has never made it past the quarter finals of a clay Masters 1000 in his career to date. With his draw, making it to the quarter finals shouldn’t be too taxing however. He begins with a qualifier or Joao Sousa.
Raonic is 2-0 on clay against Tommy Robredo, the first seed he may face in the draw. In addition to that, Raonic also defeated the Spaniard last time they met at Indian Wells last month. Robredo has won his last three against opening opponent Andreas Seppi. After retiring down 0-3 in Casablanca with a leg injury, Marcel Granollers may be far from 100% in his opener against Adrian Mannarino. Mannarino did very little on clay last year and by inflicting a seventh straight defeat on Granollers he will likely improve on his career high ranking of 31.
No.6 seed Tomas Berdych is 1-3 against Raonic although they are yet to play on clay. On his way to the quarter finals, Berdych did beat the remaining seed in this quarter in four sets. Roberto Bautista-Agut seems the likely opponent with two Germans probably between him and the Czech. Bautista-Agut begins with Benjamin Becker and then plays the winner of Philipp Kohlschreiber and Mikhail Kukushkin. Given his 9-1 record against Kohlschreiber, it’s likely Berdych would be hoping for the chance to extend that record in round three.
The final quarter is projected to see a repeat of the 2014 final which Stanislas Wawrinka once more hopes to be victorious over Roger Federer in. Jiri Vesely ended a seven match losing streak with his run to the semi finals in Casablanca and will look to take that momentum into his opener against Juan Monaco. While Wawrinka isn’t coming into the tournament still on an Australian Open high like last year, it would not be a surprise to see him make the final once more.
After losing every hard court match this year, Fabio Fognini will be glad to be back on his favoured clay. However, it will be a tough ask for him to go deep with his spot in the draw. He should have too much for Jerzy Janowicz but Grigor Dimitrov will be a good test for where the Italian is at right now. Dimitrov was a semi finalist in Rome and made the round of 16 at Monte Carlo last year. Dimitrov opens against Fernando Verdasco who is fresh off a semi final in Houston.
If Federer is to make it to the quarter finals, he will likely have to see off two Frenchmen with Jeremy Chardy or a qualifier up first. 14th seed Gael Monfils is projected to play Federer in the round of 16 but Borna Coric and Alexandr Dolgopolov are both extremely capable of pulling a shock, especially if Monfils is off his game.
Even now, Federer has proven he is capable of shocking Novak Djokovic (last year def. Djokovic 7-5 6-2 in SF) so there is plenty of intrigue in the final should Rafael Nadal fail to make it once more. Wawrinka is 1-10 against Djokovic/Nadal on clay and the one victory came by virtue of retirement during a 1st set tiebreak with Djokovic.