2018 Barcelona Open R2 Preview: Grigor Dimitrov vs Gilles Simon

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(2) Grigor Dimitrov vs Gilles Simon

Simon Says Upset?

Even with Gilles Simon floundering in form, this could shape up to be an interesting match-up for second seeded Grigor Dimitrov. Simon leads the head-to-head 5-3, although Dimitrov has won three of the last four meetings overall. They have not met since Dimitrov won in straights over the Frenchman at the Rogers Cup in 2016. Simon has won both their career clashes on clay, winning in straights in Nice in 2012 and again in Monte Carlo in 2016. The Frenchman does have a match under his belt as he eased past Ilya Ivashka 6-2, 6-3. Simon was solid on serve, allowing just one break on one opportunity. His backboard style worked against the youngster as he broke Ivashka three times on six chances. Simon ate up the second serve, winning 16 of 24 points played.

Dimitrov comes to Barcelona with some form finally after making the semifinals in Monte Carlo last week. It was his best run since making the Rotterdam final. He had gone just 1-3 in three tournaments before Monte Carlo. Dimitrov was an interesting inclusion in Barcelona this week, having avoided this tournament since 2013. He has only played two career matches, which again makes this one a bit more intriguing that you might think. Dimitrov claimed to have a bit of a shoulder issues in Monte Carlo that he believes is cleared up now, so the expectation from the Bulgarian is for another deep run this week.

The Formula

It’s normally the serve that is at fault when Simon does not contend well in matches. That’s a pretty simplistic approach to looking at this match-up to start as well. Simon won just 48 percent of the points on serve in their last meeting where Dimitrov won 6-1, 6-3. Dimitrov secured four breaks on nine chances off the Frenchman. Dimitrov himself was steady on serve, winning 76 percent of the points played. He would not be broken off of just two break opportunities.

If you look at Simon’s losses versus his wins this year, his serve numbers are drastically different. In his loss to Karen Khachanov last week in Monte Carlo, it was another effort where Simon won right around 50 percent of the serve points. In a straight sets loss to Richard Gasquet in Marrakech, he won just 41 percent of his service points. One of the issues with Simon’s serve seems to be that he does not hit the ball consistently from the same spot on his ball toss.

He often hits the ball on its descent from its peak point, which takes some of the potential power away from the serve. That means he needs to rely more on precision to get ahead with his serve. The problem for him is that Dimitrov is a solid returner, so anything that isn’t hit with precision and purpose is going to be dealt with rather easily. Simon definitely should go after the backhand return of Dimitrov which is the weaker shot in return. If Simon can target that side, it should allow him to get the next ball back where he can draw the Bulgarian into his trademark long rallies.

For Dimitrov, I think the key as it always is with Simon is to find a way to avoid getting into the Frenchman’s rhythmic rallies. It’s very easy to get drawn into these without a proper game plan. I think with Dimitrov, he has seen Simon enough that he knows he will need to find some aggression early to avoid playing too many long rallies. One of the best ways for him to do this is with his serve and second shot combo. If the second seed is hitting his serve solidly with depth, he’s very good at finishing the next ball, especially the short ball with a forehand.

The other area that Dimitrov has excelled over Simon in general is the volley game, so watch for the second seed to try and attack the net when possible. He’s adept at finishing near the net off either the forehand or backhand volley. Simon moves well still when healthy, but doesn’t finish with great touch and purpose on those same volleys. This can be a very effective way for Dimitrov to put Simon into bad court positions and also to cut down on the amount of long baseline rallies that take place.

The Pig’s Bottom Line

I still generally don’t trust Dimitrov from week to week to show up and perform consistently. For his ranking and whatever perception most have of him as a top player, he’s still not the most consistent guy on the planet. I think a lot of it is mental and going against Simon is always a test with the Frenchman is healthy and able to play his backboard style of game. Dimitrov his lost his opener at a clay court tournament six times in his last nine tournaments played. Dimitrov had some good results on dirt earlier in his career, outside of Roland Garros, but has generally been mediocre on the surface since 2016.

I think that opens the door slightly for Simon in this one, although Simon is just as difficult to trust in this spot due to his spotty serve. The 33-year-old is 1-1 against top ten players with that lone win coming early in the season in Chennai over Marin Cilic. Last year, Simon was 1-6 against the top ten. It’s tough to pick him to step up in this spot, but I do think there is a chance he challenges Dimitrov early and stretches this to three sets. A bit surprisingly to me, only two of their career eight meetings haven’t ended in straight sets. Perhaps this can be just the third to go more than two.

Prediction: Dimitrov wins in three sets

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2018 Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell Preview

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Another Week, Another Nadal Dominated Tournament

The ATP World Tour stops in Barcelona this week and with most of these big clay court tournaments, it is one that has been dominated by Rafael Nadal. The native of Mallorca sports a 53-3 record all-time at the Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell and is responsible for taking home the title ten times in the past 13 years. Nadal is looking to win the title for the third straight year after Kei Nishikori broke up Rafa’s dominant run from 2005-2013, where only Fernando Verdasco broke up what would have been a nine year run of titles for Nadal.

Nadal has only failed to win the tournament three times in 13 trips to Barcelona. He’s automatic in finals here, going a perfect ten for ten. Rafa comes in looking for his 11th title at a second straight tournament after accomplishing that feat in a dominant run in Monte Carlo last week. That culminated with a win over Nishikori in the final 6-3, 6-3. The Spaniard is now 29-1 on clay since being forced to retire from the French Open in 2016 due to injury.

Nishikori Leads Other Seeds

Things finally started clicking for Kei Nishikori in his finals run in Monte Carlo last week. This week’s 14th seed outdid his entire win total in 2018 last week, grabbing five wins before losing the final to Nadal. He had just four ATP level wins this season prior to Monte Carlo. Further up the seeded ladder this week behind Nadal are Grigor Dimitrov, Dominic Thiem and David Goffin rounding out the top four. Thiem is the only one with some success at this tournament, having made the final in 2017. Dimitrov is 0-2 and Goffin 1-2 in their brief visits to Barcelona.

The rest of the top eight is highlighted by Novak Djokovic at #6. Pablo Carreno Busta preceeds him at #5 with Diego Schwartzman and Roberto Bautista Agut completing the top eight. This is surprisingly just Djokovic’s second trip ever to Barcelona and highlights the desperation mode he is currently in as he seeks to find better form. The Serb did score his first wins since January with a third round run in Monte Carlo last week. It ended with a thud though as Thiem wore him down in three sets.

Among the remaining seeds, Spaniards Albert Ramos-Vinolas (10) and Feliciano Lopez (12) are two-time Barcelona Open quarter finalists. Fernando Verdasco slips in at #15, a winner here back in 2010. Verdasco has lost his opener two of the last three trips, dropping his first match last year to Andrey Rublev. Karen Khachanov closes out the seeds at #16. The Russian made the quarters here last year. Perhaps the highlight seed not mentioned yet is #9 Hyeon Chung. Chung made the quarters last year as well, but has not played since Miami. Chung’s season has been nothing short of consistent with quarterfinal appearances in six straight tournaments.

Six of the seeds have three matches or less under their belt all-time at this tournament, which ties us to The Eliminati – the ones who erase seeds from the tournament in their first matches. Barcelona has been a breeding ground for Eliminati, especially against top ten seeds. At least five seeds have been dumped out in their openers in three of the last four years in Barcelona. That includes nine top ten seeds. Let’s see who could join the parade this week.

ELIMINATI

Dusan Lajovic
The Serb has to get past Spanish wildcard Pedro Martinez, but if he does, he’ll get a second round date against 12th seed Feliciano Lopez. Lopez does own a 2-1 mark against Lajovic, but all three matches have gone to three sets including their last at Indian Wells in 2017. Lopez has done better at avoiding first-up losses this season with only two and he hasn’t lost his opener in Barcelona since 2014. Still, Laovic would present a tougher out and give some potential for an upset.

Martin Klizan/Federico Delbonis
The now weekly Djokovic watch includes either Klizan or Delbonis to meet him first. Delbonis has won the last two in the series against Klizan, so the Argentine could be favored to meet Djokovic. Djokovic might prefer Klizan who he has beaten all four times they have played over Delbonis who he has not battled with yet in his career. Djokovic did a nice job with his start in Monte Carlo, but his fitness still looks somewhat sketchy. I don’t know that either one of these guys can take full advantage, but nothing seems simple for Djokovic from week-to-week and especially here where he has not played but one time back in 2006.

Ivo Karlovic
Karlovic battles Tommy Robredo in round one. Should the big man get by the Spaniard, he will get another shot at Roberto Bautista Agut. Karlovic won their lone meeting last year on clay in Madrid in three sets. RBA has made the quarters here, but the last two years have been earlier exits. Last year, he lost to Ramos-Vinolas in round two. In 2-16, Khachanov beat him in round one. Karlovic’s serve would make a potential second rounder versus RBA could be a tight one.

Guido Pella
The Argentine opens against Peter Gojowczyk. A win would get him a date against Verdasco. They have split two career meetings with Pella winning on clay in Buenos Aires this year and Verdasco returning the favor at Indian Wells. Pella certainly will have a chance to get the best of the Spaniard, even on home soil.

Benoit Paire/Nicolas Jarry
The winner gets a shot at Pablo Carreno Busta. PCB has never won back to back matches in Barcelona and comes in having not played since Miami. Paire has played PCB five times and owns a couple of wins on clay, including their last in Madrid and here in Barcelona in 2011. Jarry has never played the Spaniard, but has shown some good prowess on clay during the Spring in making his first ATP final in Sao Paulo. Carreno Busta will have a tough time regardless of who makes it.

Pablo Cuevas
Cuevas could get a shot at #11 Adrian Mannarino, who is making his Barcelona debut. Cuevas is 2-0 against the Frenchman with both wins coming on clay. Cuevas will need to beat qualifier Ricardo Ojeda Lara to open, but should have a good chance to score the upset against Mannarino if he makes it to round two.

Tennys Sandgren/Malek Jaziri
The survivor of this round one match will battle Andrey Rublev in round two. Jaziri beat the Russian last year on the Challenger circuit on clay. Sandgren should have a shot to show better this week after a bad travel schedule and little prep time coming from Houston on Sunday last week to a match in Monte Carlo within a couple of days. Sandgren made his first final at this level in Houston on dirt and I think either guy here has a chance to challenge the 20-year-old Russian in round two.

Corentin Moutet/Stefanos Tsitsipas
The winner faces 7th seed Diego Schwartzman in round two. Schwartzman has not played here before and was woeful in his loss to Richard Gasquet in Monte Carlo last week. Moutet made it through qualifying and does own a win over the Greek indoors last year in Challenger play. Tsitsipas has done more at the ATP level so far, but that looks like a real dog fight in round one. The winner I think will have a chance against Schwartzman who seems to be struggling just a bit with his consistency from match to match.

Draw Preview

Quarter #1 Seeds
(1) Rafael Nadal: 53-3 (10x Winner)
(6) Novak Djokovic: 0-1
(12) Feliciano Lopez: 20-17
(14) Kei Nishikori: 19-4 (2x Winner)

Breakdown
The names will draw attention to this quarter, but form points only to Nadal as the likely semifinalist. With Nadal and Nishikori in this section, you have the two players responsible for the four most recent titles with the last two to Nadal and the two before that to Nishikori. Djokovic is clearly an outlier at this point and a quarterfinal run this week would feel pretty solid given the draw. Djokovic opens against either Martin Klizan or Federico Delbonis. That’s not easy, so any win is a good win. If he advances, he could see Lopez for a spot in the quarters. Lopez likely will need to beat Dusan Lajovic to get to that point. Djokovic is 9-1 against Lopez.

If we don’t get a repeat of the Monte Carlo final between Nadal and Nishikori in round three, it could be due to Nishikori suffering a letdown. The match-up is good for him though against either Yuichi Sugita or Guillermo Garcia-Lopez before the potential Nadal rematch. Rafa shouldn’t have any problems doing his part with Adrian Haider-Maurer or Roberto Carballas Baena in round two. My take on Nishikori’s Monte Carlo run is that it was a plus for him, but still several steps away from really being able to contend against someone like Nadal on this surface.

The Pig-nosticator

Short and sweet. It’s Nadal to push through to the semifinals. The bigger question will be whether Djokovic is there to get a shot to go against him in the quarters. Those two haven’t met since Nadal destroyed Djokovic in straights in Madrid last year. I think for the Serb it is a match he needs. Losing big will not push him back any further, but contending with the King of Clay in his current form could do a ton for his confidence.

Sizzle
Rafael Nadal

Fizzle
Feliciano Lopez

Quarter #2 Seeds
(4) David Goffin: 1-2
(8) Roberto Bautista Agut: 4-4
(9) Hyeon Chung: 3-2
(16) Karen Khachanov: 5-2

Breakdown
For me, this could be the quarter of the tournament. There are quality players among the seeds and Chung’s return to action will hopefully continue what has been a sensationally consistent season for the 21-year-old. Starting with Goffin’s half, the Belgian looks like he has his timing back after a a quarterfinal run last week in Monte Carlo that included a win over Bautista Agut. I think he’s only going to get better with more match play. He will open against either Mikhail Kukushkin or Marcel Granollers. Both players have wins over Goffin, but current form on clay would say Goffin survives.

Goffin is seeded to see Khachanov in round three. The Russian made the quarterfinals last year in Barcelona and was fairly solid in Monte Carlo before losing to Nadal. He has to get past Mischa Zverev or Leonardo Mayer in round two. Both can cause some issues, but I think the Russian has the better game if he serves well. Khachanov could be a big test for Goffin’s recovery. He’s pushed Goffin to three sets in two of the four meetings and owns his one win against three losses on clay against the Belgian here last year.

In the other half, Bautista Agut might have a tough time getting a win if he faces Ivo Karlovic to open. Karlovic takes on Tommy Robredo in round one. Karlovic’s serve alone has given RBA some problems in the past, so an upset is very possible if that match-up takes place. Chung is the one to watch here with the Korean getting a good early draw against either Bjorn Fratangelo or lucky loser Alexei Vatutin in round two. Chung us 1-1 against RBA, beating him in Shanghai last Fall. I think Karlovic’s serve would honestly be a bigger threat to stopping the 9th seed,

The Pig-nosticator

This quarter looks very open as I could make a good case for Goffin, Chung or Khachanov getting through here. You might not even want to count out someone like Karlovic or a stunner from say the Mischa Zverev-Leonardo Mayer winner in making a big run. An unseeded player has made the semifinals in three of the last four years in Barcelona. For me, Goffin is the guy though if he can find his consistency again right away this week. I do think Chung has a good shot to continue his quarterfinal streak however.

Sizzle
David Goffin
Hyeon Chung

Fizzle
Roberto Bautista Agut

Quarter #3 Seeds
(3) Dominic Thiem: 6-3
(7) Diego Schwartzman: 0-0
(10) Albert Ramos-Vinolas: 12-8
(15) Fernando Verdasco: 15-10 (2010 – W)

Breakdown
Thiem looked pretty solid in his return from an ankle injury. He got beat down by Nadal in the quarterfinals, but that just isn’t a black mark against anyone at this point. The Austrian made the final here last year, so he’ll be banking on making another big run this week. His first match comes against Joao Sousa or Jaume Minar. Sousa has been a very comfortable match-up with Thiem winning six of seven matches. Minar is a 20-year-old with some talent on clay and he’s likely to get the crowd support. Don’t write him off.

Thiem is seeded to see Verdasco for a spot in the quarters. Verdasco will have to get past Peter Gojowczyk or Guido Pella. If he can, then we might get an upset. Verdasco is 3-0 against the 3rd seed and owns a straight sets win over him on clay already in 2018. In the other half, Schwartzman debuts at this tournament. The Argentine was pounded in his second match in Monte Carlo last week by Richard Gasquet, which doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence in spit of the Frenchman’s recent good run. Schwartzman will face qualifier Corentin Moutet or Stefanos Tsitsipas. Don’t be surprised if one of those youngsters doesn’t push him the 7th seed pretty hard.

That could leave Ramos-Vinolas to make a third quarterfinal run in Barcelona. ARV has been a bit mediocre lately, but gets a boost with the draw. He could face Jared Donaldson for the second straight week after beating the American in straights in Monte Carlo. Donaldson has to get past Rogerio Dutra Silva first. For me, I would be a bit surprised if Ramos-Vinolas doesn’t at least get the opportunity. He would definitely benefit from Schwartzman losing early though with an 0-2 mark against the Argentine.

The Pig-nosticator

I think there could be some upsets among the top seeds in this quarter. Schwartzman could potentially join the pile of top ten seeds who have lost their openers in the last few years. Thiem won’t like having Verdasco possibly in his way, but this might be his week to make a move after getting to test the ankle last week and coming away with positive results. For me though, I look to Ramos-Vinolas or Verdasco to sneak through this section.

Sizzle
Albert Ramos-Vinolas

Fizzle
Diego Schwartzman

Quarter #4 Seeds
(2) Grigor Dimitrov: 0-2
(5) Pablo Carreno Busta: 3-6
(11) Adrian Mannarino: 0-0
(13) Andrey Rublev: 1-1

Breakdown
This quarter looks top heavy amongst the seeds with Mannarino having no experience here and Rublev having leveled off from a hot start to the season in January. The lack of success among the seeds in this final quarter means this sucker could be wide open. Dimitrov will be the favorite after recapturing some form in Monte Carlo. Dimitrov’s semifinal run was his best in a while. He faces Gilles Simon or Ilya Ivashka to start. Simon gave Dimitrov some trouble in the past with a 5-3 record against the Bulgarian, but Dimitrov won the last two meetings in 2016.

Rublev is opposite of Dimitrov in that half. The Russian will face tough opposition against either Sandgren or Jaziri in his opener. An upset is definitely possible there. Dimitrov likely won’t be bothered if Rublev makes it with the 3rd seed having beaten Rublev twice since losing to him last year at the U.S. Open. As usual, this looks like a spot for Dimitrov to make a run – but can he take advantage? The other half with Carreno Busta looks open to an unseeded player making a run.

PCB will be up against it versus Benoit Paire or Nicolas Jarry in his opener. Mannarino may also not be longed for a run with an opener likely against Cuevas. I think it’s fairly realistic that Cuevas or the Paire-Jarry winner could emerge as a quarter finalist. Cuevas is 1-2 against Dimitrov, but the win came on clay in 2015. Paire is 2-1 against Dimitrov, although they have not met since 2015 and never on clay. Still, this quarter gets tricky with the dangerous floaters.

The Pig-nosticator

Dimitrov is an obvious contender, but his lack of success here coupled with some dangerous unseeded players could yield some upsets. I’d look for that Paire-Jarry winner or Cuevas to have a very good chance to push into the semifinal mix.

Sizzle
Grigor Dimitrov

Fizzle
Pablo Carreno Busta
Adrian Mannarino

AND THAT’S THE BOTTOM LINE BECAUSE THE PIG SAID SO …

It’s another week on clay and another week of Rafael Nadal vs The World. I think it’s to the point now that you look at the draw and say what Nadal matches could maybe be close. Nadal-Djokovic? Not so sure. Nadal-Chung or Nadal-Goffin? Maybe a bit closer. Nadal-Thiem or Nadal-Dimitrov? What changes from what he did to them in Monte Carlo? The bottom line is this is Nadal’s tournament and barring an injury, you’d fancy him to get #11 in Barcelona this week.

2018 Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters SF Preview: Rafael Nadal vs Grigor Dimitrov

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(1) Rafael Nadal vs (4) Grigor Dimitrov

Turn It Up to Eleven

Nadal’s quest for an 11th title in Monte Carlo can take one step closer to becoming reality on Saturday when he seeks his 11th win in 12 matches against Grigor Dimitrov. Nadal punished fifth seed Dominic Thiem 6-0, 6-2 on the quarterfinals. Nadal was dominant in winning 29 of 35 points played on his serve, never allowing Thiem to even sniff a break chance. The Austrian meanwhile struggling for any sort of consistency as Nadal broke him seven times on 12 chances. Thiem would win just 52 percent of his first serve points and only 37 percent off his second. That was made all the worse with Thiem landing just 42 percent of his first serves.

Thiem had 25 unforced errors in the match and never looked like he would threaten Nadal. There wasn’t enough depth on his ground strokes, while Nadal was able to consistently move Thiem around the court with a ferocious forehand and a solid backhand. Nadal did an excellent job of being the aggressor, which did not allow Thiem enough time to set up for maximum effect on his power groundies from the baseline. Nadal called it his best match of the tournament.

Dimitrov has been on a somewhat low-key run to the semifinals. I outlined in the preview this week that the fourth seed had little success here recently and his form was poor, yet there was a possibiliy with this draw that he could do what he has done. Dimitrov edged David Goffin to get to the semis 6-4, 7-6 (5). It was his first straight sets win after needing three to beat both Pierre-Hugues Herbert an Philipp Kohlschreiber. Dimitrov was a bit fortunate to secure the win on Friday, blowing a shot to serve out the first set at 5-3 and then having to rally from down 4-0 in set two.

Credit to him though for pulling it together to notch his fourth straight win over Goffin. Dimitrov was solid with his first serve in winning 75 percent of the points, but he really stumbled on second serve. Dimitrov won just 10 of 26 points played and was broken three times overall. Goffin dished out 13 break chances with Dimitrov securing four breaks overall. Tactically, I saw some good things on the tape from Dimitrov. He played more aggressively off the ground in going for winners early, rather than allowing himself to get sucked into longer rallies. That’s something that will serve him well if he’s hoping to beat Nadal.

The Formula

Despite the lopsided head-to-head, Dimitrov has shown in the past year that he is at a point where he can better compete with Nadal. The problem of course is that wins are still elusive. Still, he has taken Nadal the distance in their last three meetings – all in 2017 – and scored his lone win at the tail end of 2016 in Beijing in straight sets. There is some confidence from that, but he has to figure out how to start better. Dimitrov has taken the opening set just twice in their eleven meetings. You already know Nadal is going to work you hard, so losing the first set is a double whammy. If Dimitrov has true intentions of winning this clash, I think he’s got to solve Nadal earlier and put some pressure on the Spaniard.

How does he do this? I think starting aggressive as he did against Goffin is a start. Too often against Nadal, he’s allowed himself to get sucked into those baseline to baseline rallies. Dimitrov has the variety to stay in those off both wings, but that’s often where he falls into his own trap of having too many choices instead of going for an earlier winner. I think his return game is a big part of what can go right or wrong against Nadal. If he’s just happy to chip the ball back to Nadal, then he’s going to get caught in Rafa’s web. I’d like to see Dimitrov take some more aggressive rips on return.

Off his own serve, Dimitrov has to hit his spots against Nadal. The top seed is going to set up deep like usual, which makes it more difficult to stretch him in return. What he can do is push Rafa back with depth, but then he has to be in position to do something more off the next ball back to him. In watching their highlights from the last meeting in Shanghai, there were times when Dimitrov pushed Nadal back, but he didn’t do enough with that next shot. When he pushes Nadal back on return, I think the aggression has to come again. Whether it’s forcing Nadal to sprint laterally or pushing a ball right back at him a second time, Dimitrov has to make that shot more purposeful.

For Nadal, if his serve is doing its job effectively then the rest of his game really turns his opponent on their heads. The serve has been the one point that opponents have shown they can attack at times, but Rafa has been super clean this week. He’s winning right around 80 percent off his first serve this week and more ridiculously, over 70 percent off his second serve. Nadal has allowed just three break chances overall and if Dimitrov can’t force the issue with more than that by himself, then he has little to no chance in my estimation.

Off the ground, Nadal will again use his looping lefty forehand to attack Dimitrov’s often marvelous one handed backhand. The topspin and trajectory of Nadal’s forehand seems to keep Dimitrov from getting the best in return with his backhand. Dimitrov may try to run around some of those exchanges to hit forehands, but if he doesn’t, it’s no secret that Nadal will continue to go after the backhand. As with his fiercest rival Roger Federer, Nadal has called this an easy tactic – hitting his best shot and forcing his opponent to reproduce a tougher shot over and over off the backhand.

The Pig’s Bottom Line

On clay, this is nearly mission impossible for Dimitrov. Clay has always been a tougher surface for Dimitrov, while Nadal obviously thrives on it. They have met three times on clay with Nadal dropping just one set back in 2013 at this tournament. The stunning fashion in which Nadal pummeled Thiem sends a warning signal to everyone that the King of Clay isn’t going away this year. These clay court titles are like oxygen for Nadal. As badly as he wants to win any title, I think winning on clay is his lifeblood. Each one giving him more fuel for the ultimate dessert in Paris next month.

The interesting thing in this one will be to see if Dimitrov psyches himself out with this being on clay or if he comes with a proper game plan. Again for me, that is being aggressive early. Avoiding second serves is huge as well with Dimitrov almost always struggling to win 50 percent against Nadal. Often, it’s much lower as Nadal tees off on those weaker serves. If Dimitrov can avoid that and find a way to stay away from the Nadal forehand enough, perhaps he can take a set. I don’t know that he can do much more than that with how Rafa is playing at the moment.

Prediction: Nadal wins in straight sets

2018 Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters Preview

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Nadal Looking to Ignite Another Run on Clay

Rafael Nadal returns to ATP World Tour play this week in Monte Carlo as the two-time defending champion at the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters. Nadal returned to action last weekend during Davis Cup play with a pair of destructive wins over Philipp Kohlschreiber and Alexander Zverev in straight sets. It was the Spaniard’s first action since retiring in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open due to a hip injury. The wins should serve as a loud signal that Rafa is healthy again and the 31-year-old looks primed to run roughshod during his favorite part of the tour calendar.

Rafa says it feels like his season is starting again since he has only played one tournament so far and that could mean we’ll see a fresher Nadal heading towards the French Open. The “King of Clay” sports a 63-4 record in Monte Carlo during his career, having won the title ten times. He has only missed making the final three times in 14 trips. The world #1 heads to Monte Carlo having lost just one of his last 25 matches on dirt. He was 24-1 in 2017 with the lone loss to Dominic Thiem in Rome. Despite that, it’s not going to be easy for Rafa with Thiem, Djokovic and a rejuvenated Borna Coric all in his quarter. The plus is that those three are all stuck in the bottom half, so he will only face one of them and not until quarterfinals.

Is Djokovic Relevant?

The other player most will monitor this week is Novak Djokovic. The Serb is fresh off a clean break with his former coaching staff as he parted ways with both Andre Agassi and Radek Stepanek. In recent days, it has been reported that Djokovic has begun working with former longtime coach Marian Vajda again. Vajda was with the Serb for over a decade before Djokovic shook things up by parting with Vajda last May. That came after Djokovic lost in the quarters in Monte Carlo to David Goffin.

2018 has been an absolute nightmare for the Serb, who is just 3-3 overall. He is on a three match losing skid heading into the clay court season with opening match exits in both Indian Wells and Miami to haunt him in preparations for Monte Carlo. Perhaps that is why he decided to go with something familiar in reuniting with Vajda at least to prepare for clay court play. It’s very difficult to say that Djokovic is relevant right now with no form, definite mental stress and still a big question mark over how healthy his right elbow is at this point.

To be quite honest, any win that Djokovic gets this tournament will be a good one for him. He is in desperate search for that winning touch again and Monte Carlo might be a tough place for him to find it. Remember that this is the site of one of the bigger upsets in Djokovic’s career, when he lost to Jiri Vesely in his opener in 2016. The Serb is just 2-2 in the last two years at this tournament. So to answer my own header – at this point, Djokovic doesn’t seem like a relevant player until proven otherwise. He is beatable by anyone on any day.

The Challengers

So with Nadal the prohibitive favorite in Monte Carlo and Djokovic an unsteady choice, who are the realistic challengers to be in the finals mix outside of Rafa? That is a damn good question. None of the young guns have stepped up here in limited action with Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem both never going past the round of 16 in six combined tries. Thiem is also coming in off a “small” ankle fracture suffered at Indian Wells. That would not seem to bode well for a reversal of fortune this year.

Interestingly outside of Nadal and Djokovic, the only other repeat semifinalist in the last four years is Gael Monfils. The Frenchman has done that in successive trips in 2015 and 2016 as the 14th and 13th seed respectively. He won’t be in the mix this year however, having already announced he was skipping Monte Carlo due to – you guessed it – injury.

Of the higher seeds you might look to with Marin Cilic and Grigor Dimitrov filling the #2 and #3 slots this week – Cilic has had some modest success here at 12-9 overall. The Croat has made the quarterfinals his last two trips in 2015 and 2017. Dimitrov? He’s made the quarters twice, but has been a flop the last two years. Dimitrov lost his opener to Jan-Lennard Struff in 2017 and was done in round two in 2016 via straight sets to Gilles Simon. Couple that with his his putrid 1-3 mark over his last three tournaments, that includes two opening losses and he’s hard to see as a contender.

How about Lucas Pouille? The Frenchman comes in off two nice wins on clay in Davis Cup play in leading France to victory. He outlasted Andreas Seppi in five sets and Fabio Fognini in four. Pouille has increased his results in each of his three trips to Monte Carlo, culminating in a semifinal showing last year. Or perhaps the surprise finalist last year, Albert Ramos-Vinolas, who ousted Pouille. Ramos-Vinolas comes in with similar mediocre form after losing to qualifier Alexei Vatutin in Marrakech this week. All the Spaniard did during last year’s run was beat Andy Murray, Marin Cilic and Lucas Pouille to claim three Top 20 wins, including two of his career five wins over players in the Top 10.

I think the point being that there is a lot of guesswork behind Nadal this week in finding a player you really like to make a deep run. To that point, The Eliminati could have a field day on some higher seeds this week. Despite a small number of opening upsets for seeds in recent times, just eight seeds have fallen in their openers since 2014 in Monte Carlo, four top ten seeds have been dumped out in each of the last two years. With that in mind, let’s take a look at who the unseeded danger men are this week.

ELIMINATI

Dusan Lajovic
The Serb gets first pop at Novak Djokovic this week. Lajovic hasn’t had a ton of success at the ATP level this season at just 3-7, but comes in off winning a title at the Challenger level on hard courts. He’s only faced Djokovic once and it was in Doha back in 2015. Djokovic crushed him in straights, but this of course is not the same Djokovic. Everything is a question these days for Nole, so don’t be surprised if Lajovic plays him tough and has his fellow Serb on edge for a while.

Denis Shapovalov/Stefanos Tsitsipas
Whomever gets a shot at David Goffin in the round of 32 is going to fancy their chances of scoring an upset. Goffin has played just one match since injuring his eye in Rotterdam in February. That was a 6-0, 6-1 loss to Joao Sousa in Miami last month. The Belgian has admitted his confidence is low and his timing is off because of the injury and layoff. You get the feeling that he just needs a win to boost his confidence, but switching to clay without much match play in two months is a tough ask. Shapovalov can probably match Goffin’s speed better, but Tsitsipas has the power to trouble him too.

Guido Pella
Pella draws fellow Argentine and 10th seed Diego Schwartzman in round one. Pella has owned Schwartzman in their ATP careers with one main draw win over him at the French Open in 2016 along with three other wins on the Challenger and Futures circuits. Schwartzman has certainly come into his own since their last meeting, but history suggests this will be a tough match-up.

Alexandr Dolgopolov
The Dog has to get by Kyle Edmund in round one, no easy feat, but he does own a couple wins over the Brit albeit on grass. If he does win, he’ll take on 8th seed Pablo Carreno Busta in round two. PCB went 1-1 against Dolgopolov last year on clay with his win coming via retirement in the third set in Rio. Dog usually puts on a show even in losses as he plays in his adopted home town, so expect him to put up a big fight whether he wins or loses.

Kei Nishikori
A poor match-up for (12) Tomas Berdych in round one. Berdych is 1-4 against Nishikori, although the one win was on clay in Monte Carlo in 2012. This will be their first meeting in more than two years and perhaps Berdych has a chance to avoid the upset with Nishikori still searching for his best since returning from injury. Nishikori is just 4-3 on the season and has only played in Monte Carlo the one time when he lost to Berdych in the third round.

Fernando Verdasco/Pablo Cuevas
Either one of these two vets could give #2 seed Marin Cilic a real run for his money in the opener for the Croat. Verdasco and Cuevas are even in four meetings on clay in their careers. Verdasco has only been out of the opening round once in his last three visits, while Cuevas made a quarterfinal run here last year. Cilic has never met Cuevas, while owning a 7-5 advantage over Verdasco in their careers. They’ve split two career meetings on clay and haven’t met since Tokyo in 2016. The good news for Cilic is that he’s won five of the last six match-ups. Cuevas could be the tougher out as a result.

Draw Preview

Quarter #1 Seeds
(1) Rafael Nadal: 63-4 (10x Winner, 2017)
(5) Dominic Thiem: 3-4
(9) Novak Djokovic: 30-9 (W – 2013, 2015)
(16) Adrian Mannarino: 2-3

Breakdown
This quarter will draw all the attention with Nadal, Thiem and Djokovic amongst the players. It’s a tougher go for Thiem and Djokovic who are stuck in the bottom half of this quarter together. Thiem has never had much success in Monte Carlo and we’ve beaten Djokovic’s story with a sledgehammer at this point. Thiem won’t have the easiest of openers against either Robin Haase or Andrey Rublev. Rublev hasn’t won a match since Rotterdam, string of three straight one and dones. Haase would be the much tougher out with Rublev unlikely to force Thiem out of his baseline comfort zone. Haase is 3-2 against the 5th seed, but it was Thiem winning in straights here against the Dutchman last year.

Djokovic opens against fellow Serb Dusan Lajovic, who made it through qualifying. Djokovic won their lone prior clash, but that was back in 2015. Lajovic is a gritty type who could push Djokovic. The winner gets the survivor between Borna Coric and Julien Benneteau. Coric was a revelation during the Sunshine Double in Indian Wells and Miami with a semifinal and quarterfinal showing. The 21-year-old migh be a bit gassed from the heavy schedule though as he lost to Mikhail Kukushkin in Davis Cup play on clay. Coric has also lost all three matches that he has played in Monte Carlo, so perhaps Benneteau continues his woes.

The top half of the draw should belong to Nadal. The top seed opens against either Aljaz Bedene or Mirsa Basic. A win there nets Nadal a meeting with the winner between Karen Khachanov and either Gilles Simon or Adrian Mannarino. Mannarino is 2-0 in his career against Simon and Simon is coming in on short rest from the rain delated tournament in Marrakesh. Khachanov opened with a straight sets win over Thanasi Kokkinakis earlier on Sunday. The Russian has been decent on clay in his early career, so he could knock off Mannarino or Simon. None of those guys looks the part of stopping Rafa from getting to the quarters.

The Pig-nosticator

In the end, I still see this as Nadal’s quarter to lose. Thiem is probably the guy who could give him the toughest match at this stage, but he has to prove health after his ankle injury in Miami.

Sizzle
Rafael Nadal

Fizzle
Borna Coric

Quarter #2 Seeds
(4) Grigor Dimitrov: 9-5
(6) David Goffin: 7-5
(11) Roberto Bautista Agut: 7-5
(15) Albert Ramos-Vinolas: 8-6

Breakdown
What an open quarter this appears to be. Dimitrov comes in with nothing much in form. Goffin has just the one match since injuring his eye and he looked woeful. Bautista Agut has been poor at just 1-2 since winning the title in Dubai and Ramos-Vinolas has looked pretty mediocre at best in recent weeks. In Dimitrov’s half, he gets the winner between qualifier Pierre Hugues-Herbert and Paolo Lorenzi. PHH has been playing fairly well of late, so he could get the jump in that match. Dimitrov in spite of his bad run in the last month, should get through to round three.

Ramos-Vinolas is seeded to see him there, but has to get through Jared Donaldson to open. Then, either Tennys Sandgren or Philipp Kohlschreiber awaits. Sandgren is playing in his first ATP final in Houston on Sunday, so he will probably have a very difficult time, whether he wins or loses, of recovering and adjusting with the travel. Give Kohlschreiber the edge there and don’t be surprised if the German is a very tough out. He’s 16-10 all-time in Monte Carlo, although he hasn’t been able to get past round two since 2013. A lot of that has been due to tough draws, but he’s always been a tough out in that round.

In the other half, Goffin will need to find his game early as he will face either Denis Shapovalov or Stefanos Tsitsipas in his opener. It’s difficult to think Goffin is going to “click” with just one live match since February, so an upset is highly possible. In the other part of this half, Bautista Agut opens with Peter Gojowczyk. RBA should be the better player on this surface, but he’s in a slump. The survivor takes on Benoit Paire or Feliciano Lopez. Those two have split two career meetings with Paire taking the last in 2017 indoors. RBA would love to see Paire, who he is 6-0 against in their careers.

The Pig-nosticator

This quarter could go any which way. This is probably Dimitrov’s best shot at a deep run due to all the question marks, but he’s one of the top question marks here in the first place. Unseeded players don’t normally make it to the semifinals in Monte Carlo with Fabio Fognini’s run in 2013 being the last. Still, if someone is to break that trend – this might be the quarter with none of the seeds inspiring in play or history here. Goffin is the seed to watch for me. If and it’s a big if, IF he finds his timing and gets confidence in his eye, then he’s got a legit shot to get hot. Otherwise, my eyes fall to the Shapovalov-Tsitsipas winner and Kohlschreiber as dark horses.

Sizzle
Grigor Dimitrov

Fizzle
Albert Ramos-Vinolas

Quarter #3 Seeds
(3) Alexander Zverev: 3-2
(7) Lucas Pouille: 7-3
(10) Diego Schwartzman: 3-2
(13) Fabio Fognini: 11-9

Breakdown
For me, this quarter should be fun to watch. Zverev showed his prowess on clay in 2017, tallying 16 of his 38 career wins on dirt, including his unexpected title in Rome. Sascha found some form in Miami, but disappointed in losing the final to John Isner. He split clay clashes in Davis Cup play with David Ferrer and Rafael Nadal. I think those tests should help him in Monte Carlo. Zverev starts against Florian Mayer or Gilles Muller. A win puts him in position to possibly see Fognini for a spot in the quarterfinals.

Fognini takes on Ilya Ivashka in round one. Ivashka was solid in qualies, but has just one main draw win on clay at this level. Fognini is always tough to gauge. He lost his opener twice in the last three trips to Monte Carlo, but should have a good shot to avoid the hat trick. A win puts him against either Yuichi Sugita or Jan-Lennard Struff. Both of those should be advantageous match-ups on clay, but Sugita might be interesting. The man from Japan took the Italian to five sets in a Davis Cup clash earlier this season, but that was indoors on a hard surface. I will be disappointed if we don’t see a Sascha-Fab Mode showdown for a spot in the quarterfinals.

Pouille is the guy I outlined as a possible sleeper for the final in a year where it is hard to figure out who has a shot other than Nadal. Pouille opens against Mischa Zverev, who survived a three setter on Sunday against Felix Auger-Aliassime 6-2, 6-7 (4), 6-1. Pouille will have to adjust to Mischa’s serve and volley tactics, but I think he has the net game to survive. His third round opponent is seeded to be Diego Schwartzman, but he’s going to have a hard time getting there. He opens against Guido Pella and then would face either Richard Gasquet or Jeremy Chardy. Gasquet played well in Marrakesh before losing to Kyle Edmund in the semis. He looks like a potential sleeper. Pouille is 4-1 vs Gasquet.

The Pig-nosticator

The semifinal slot should come down to one of three players I think; Sascha Zverev, Pouille or Fognini. With questions continuing to scatter across the ATP landscape, this is another chance for Sascha to seize some of the limelight and show he is the next in line. I think Pouille is the danger for him and this would be their first meeting all-time. I will say this too – I don’t fancy Schwartzman this week, but if he escapes against Pella in round one, do watch out for him.

Sizzle
Lucas Pouille

Fizzle
Diego Schwartzman

Quarter #4 Seeds
(2) Marin Cilic: 12-9
(8) Pablo Carreno Busta: 5-4
(12) Tomas Berdych: 20-13
(14) Milos Raonic: 10-6

Breakdown
One of these things (Carreno Busta) is not like the other. It’s a bunch of bigger hitting seeds and then Carreno Busta in this quarter. PCB might have the more advantageus half over Cilic. The Spaniard could have to face Marrakesh finalist Kyle Edmund in his opener, but the Brit is sure to be feeling some fatigue after a long week and a quick turnaround. Edmund opens with Andreas Seppi, who might take advantage of that situation first. Carreno Busta is very much hit and miss on clay. The biggest hit coming in making the French Open quarterfinals last year, but four misses in his last six tournaments on clay, where he lost his opening match.

Opposite of Carreno Busta in this half is Berdych who has perhaps the worst first round match-up on paper against Kei Nishikori. Nishikori is 4-1 against Berdych, but of course is still trying to find his way back to scoring consistent results. Berdych looks boom or bust here, with an early win over a nemesis perhaps fueling a run. The survivor from the Berdych-Nishikori clash goes against Daniil Medvedev. The Russian held off Marton Fucsovics in first round play. That was the 22-year-old’s second win on clay in his career.

In the other half, Cilic will have the tough task of beating either Fernando Verdasco or Pablo Cuevas in his opener. That one should definitely be labelled as a possible upset. Should Cilic survive, Milos Raonic is seeded to see him in the round of 16. Raonic may have found his confidence in Miami with a quarterfinal run that ended with a tough three set loss to Juan Martin Del Potro. Raonic opens with wild card Lucas Catarina and then may see Damir Dzumhur in round two. Dzumhur starts against Marco Cecchinato. Dzumhur is just a .500 player on dirt though and hasn’t won a Masters main draw match since Miami last year. Watch out for Raonic.

The Pig-nosticator

One quarterfinal spot could come down to Cilic vs Raonic with the Croat owning a 2-1 lead, including a win on clay in their last meeting in Istanbul in 2017. Carreno Busta could be the “sleeper” here even as the #8. I’m still waiting for Nishikori to find those consistent results. This could be a sneaky week for him if he gets by Berdych, but nothing has been easy for him to this point. In the end, I think I’d favor Cilic or Raonic as the best bet to get through this quarter.

Sizzle
Milos Raonic

Fizzle
Tomas Berdych

AND THAT’S THE BOTTOM LINE BECAUSE THE PIG SAID SO …

Novak Djokovic will be watched closely this week for signs of life after reuniting with his former coach, but it’s Rafael Nadal who should be doing most of the heavy lifting. The ten time Monte Carlo champion looked fit and ready to roar on clay again with his Davis Cup wins a week ago. He will be bitterly disappointed I think not to start off the clay campaign with a title run. It’s difficult to see someone in the top half stopping him on the way to the final. Thiem is the likeliest candidate in a quarterfinal, but he’s got to get there first.

The bottom half provides more intrigue and I think the better shot for someone perhaps to have a chance to beat Nadal in the final … or at least play him tough. I’m eager to see if Raonic can transition his Miami success to something good on clay. He is a three-time quarterfinalist in Monte Carlo, so it’s not too big of an ask. I still rank Pouille as the one to watch in this half, but it’s likely Sascha Zverev who might provide the best test for Nadal in a final. I always think it’s put up or shut up time for Sascha and this week is no different.

I’m not going against the grain this week though – I expect Nadal to grind his way to title #11 in Monte Carlo and again serve notice that the road to a Roland Garros title is going through him again.

The Ocho: Miami Open Wrap-up

Ocho

“The Eight” …. Every week, @tennispig will give his top eight ATP singles players and top eight ATP/WTA doubles teams from the previous week. It’s a great way to monitor who is hot … and who is not. This week, it’s all about the Miami Open.

1. John Isner
Isner’s tennis is never going to be a phenomenal watch, but you can still appreciate what the 32-year-old accomplished by winning the title in Miami. The title is his lone Masters 100 title and 13th for his career. The win also pushes Isner into the top ten in the rankings at #9 this week. Isner was last inside the top ten right around four years ago in April 2014. For a guy who was 2-6 in 2018 before winning six straight in Miami, it was a monster week.

ISNER

2. Alexander Zverev
Despite losing in three sets to Isner in the final, Miami could well have been the boost that Zverev needed to get his season out of neutral. The German was 8-4 on the season, but really void of any impressive runs. That changed in Miami with wins over Nick Kyrgios, Borna Coric and Pablo Carreno Busta. Sure, he didn’t keep it together very well in the final and we saw a little of the mentally fragile Sascha again – but overall, he should have gained confidence from this run. His forehand was consistent and if he takes only that moving forward this season, he may begin to rack up more impressive results more consistently.

3. Juan Martin Del Potro
Del Potro simply had to be on the list this time around, even though his 15 match win streak was ended by Isner in the semifinals. I thought Del Potro would have gassed out earlier in Miami after title runs in Acapulco and Indian Wells, but he persevered into the semifinals and remained steady at #6 in the rankings. The Argentine showed us during this winning streak that he’s got the passion, play and perhaps finally – the fitness – to be a major player in 2018. He’ll take a break after a heavy workload and has already talked up a reduced clay court schedule. That’s smart thinking for a player who wants to still be strong as the season rolls back into hard court play in the summer.

4. Bryan Brothers
The first six weeks of the seson belonged to Oliver Marach and Mate Pavic, but since then it has been Bob and Mike Bryan who have shown the most consistency on the doubles scene. They were finally rewarded for that with a title in Miami after failing to win in finals appearances in both Acapulco and Indian Wells. The twins remain a solid #2 to Marach-Pavic in the rankings and have closed the gap to juder under 800 points. One month ago, they were nearly 1,800 points back.

BRYANS

5. Borna Coric
Coric completed the Sunshine double with a quarterfinal showing in Miami, his fourth at a Masters event. That followed his first Masters 1000 semifinal at Indian Wells. The Croat scored wins over Denis Shapovalov and Jack Sock, showing that defense again is a good way to beat players who definitely have a bit better weaponry on the offensive end. Considering that the season now flips to clay, where Coric should be even better – a golden opportunity could be waiting for the 21-year-old in the next two months.

6. Grigor Dimitrov
What is an “Ocho” without Dimitrov on the list once again for the wrong reasons. The shine of his early season has dimmed to darkness with Dimitrov going 1-2 in Indian Wells and Miami combined. Losses to Fernando Verdasco and then Jeremy Chardy in Miami are not the thing that a player ranked #5 should be experiencing. We’re once again back into “wait mode” with Dimitrov, waiting for him to realize all that potential and turn it into consistent results. He may well turn it back on during the switch to clay, but consistency is really still pretty elusive for Dimitrov especially at Masters and Slams.

7. David Goffin
I don’t think much was expected of Goffin in Miami due to the lengthy layoff after the freak eye injury in Rotterdam, but what transpired is very troubling. Goffin was crushed by Joao Sosa 6-0, 6-1. Goffin admitted his pupil is still “expanded” in that injured eye and that he needs to gain confidence with his vision again. The Belgian said he felt he practiced and trained well for the event, but that at full match speed – he now knows he has a lot of work to do to rediscover his overall confidence and rhythm.

8. Novak Djokovic
The Serb is also on this list for the wrong reasons. More was expected of Djokovic in Miami after he flopped in his return at Indian Wells. Perhaps we again expected too much of a player who missed months due to an elbow injury and then had to have some procedure done on it again this season. He’s had just two matches since Melbourne with losses to Taro Daniel and then Benoit Paire in Miami.

On top of that, Djokovic has ended his relationships with Andre Agassi and Radek Stepanek, who were the two key cogs of his coaching team. The Agassi relationship seemed flawed and Djokovic’s lack of health since they began working with each other last May really jinxed any chances of seeing success. From statements from Agassi, it also appears they never got on the same page with what they wanted to do. For the Serb, finding his confidence and game again should be paramount to finding another coach.