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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Quarter #3 Seeds
(3) Alexander Zverev: 3-2
(7) Lucas Pouille: 7-3
(10) Diego Schwartzman: 3-2
(13) Fabio Fognini: 11-9
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 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.
Quarter #4 Seeds
(2) Marin Cilic: 12-9
(8) Pablo Carreno Busta: 5-4
(12) Tomas Berdych: 20-13
(14) Milos Raonic: 10-6
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.
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.
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.