When Eight Isn't Enough
There are a lot of similarities between Novak Djokovic and Victoria Azarenka. They’ve both been No. 1, they both love hard courts, they both have a mix of offense and defense that’s a perfect fit for the way the game is played today.
And they’ve both been tough on this tennis-tournament previewer recently. First Vika made me wait for three days to start the women’s-draw breakdown in Miami; just as I was typing the first words, she pulled out. Now Novak is doing something similar, with his own ankle issue, in Monte Carlo. The top seed says he’ll decide whether to play what’s essentially his hometown event tomorrow. Officials of the Principality, who provide him with a tax-exempt life, encourage him to participate, and Novak stuck it out here last year even after his grandfather died. So you get the feeling he’ll do what he can this time.
Djokovic’s decision will obviously have a big effect on any preview of the event, but it’s a day too long to wait for me. The men are already into their second afternoon of matches at the game's most famous cliffside country club. Here's a breakdown of the draw, with the assumption that it stays the same as it is right now, with Novak at the top.
Who would Djokovic and his iffy ankle have to face if he does play? Running down the list from, roughly, most dangerous to least, his section includes Del Potro, Raonic, Isner, Monaco, Dolgopolov, and Gulbis. Novak’s first match will be against Mikhail Youzhny.
Del Potro is the most imposing figure of those, both on paper and across the net. He beat Djokovic at Indian Wells, but it would be a tougher proposition on clay—Djokovic is 2-0 against del Potro on this surface (and 8-3 overall). The big Argentine, who was nursing a bad wrist when last we saw him in Miami, may also have his hands full in the third round with a big Canadian, Milos Raonic. The Missile was firing in his straight-set win over Julien Benneteau on Monday afternoon.
Second-round match to Watch: Del Potro vs. Dolgopolov. This will be Delpo’s first match at Monte Carlo since 2009. Dolgo has played well here in the past.
First-round match to watch: Isner vs. Gulbis. They’ve had their highs and lows, but both are on the (tentative) upswing at the moment. Isner, the world’s unlikeliest dirtballer, looked good winning his first tournament of the year, on clay in Houston, this weekend.
Already gone: Bernard Tomic, who didn’t appear happy to be playing in his adopted hometown. He kicked off his clay season with yet another retreat into indifference, this time against Dolgopolov.
Semifinalist: Del Potro
With Roger Federer and David Ferrer in absentia, Tomas Berdych moves up to the four spot. He had a good run here last year, beating Andy Murray in the quarters and taking a set from Djokovic in the semis. Judging from his draw, another trip to the weekend is a distinct possibility. Berdych starts with the winner of Hanescu and Granollers, might get Fognini after that, and is scheduled to face Gasquet in the quarters.
Speaking of Reeshard, this is also an opportunity for him. He has a positive history in Monte Carlo, the place where he beat Federer in 2005, and he's coming off a semifinal run in Miami. Gasquet will start against fellow Frenchman Benoit Paire, and the highest seed in his half is Marin Cilic. A rubber match against Berdych for a spot in the semis seems likely. The two went 1-1 in Indian Wells and Miami.
First-round match to watch: Jerzy Janowicz vs. Kevin Anderson. Big Kev just had a runner-up finish in Casablanca. As for Jerzy, he’s still...Jerzy. The two have never played.
And who do we find buried two-thirds of the way down the draw, seeded innocuously at No. 3? The man who is going for his ninth straight title at Monte Carlo, Rafael Nadal. This isn’t an uncommon occurrence for Rafa on clay; as hard as it is to believe, he has only won the French Open one time (in 2011) when he was the top seed. You might say that’s an indication that the sport should go to surface seedings, but his spot in a draw has never seemed to bother him before. With Djokovic hobbled, everyone knows who the favorite is to win this one— Rafa himself might even admit it. He says his knee feels OK at the moment, and we’ve already seen him back at his best this year, in Indian Wells.
Nadal will start against the winner of Verdasco and Matosevic, and could get Kohlschreiber in the round after that. If the seeds hold, he’ll play Tipsarevic in the quarters. Of those players, only Verdasco has a win over him on (blue) clay in Madrid last year, but Nadal probably doesn’t need to worry too much: He won their other 14 matches.
Second-round match to watch: Tipsarevic vs. Dimitrov. The Bulgarian continues to make progress; we’ll see how far he's come when he plays the upsettable Tipsy.
As my friend Pete Bodo wrote this weekend, Andy Murray should be an intriguing figure this spring. He’s never won a tournament on clay, or even reached a final, yet his game shouldn’t, in theory, be ill-suited to the surface. He says he’s going to put more of an effort into the European swing this time around. We may or may not have heard that before from Muzz, but I’ll take him at his word. He’s already seeded ahead of Nadal in Monte Carlo—that’s a strange kind of achievement in itself for a guy with 36 fewer clay titles than Rafa. What’s the key for Murray to get better on this stuff? He has the requisite consistency, but a finishing forehand is just as important.
Murray’s spring push will begin against France’s Edouard Roger-Vasselin, and continue, perhaps, against Stan Wawrinka in the third round. On the other side of this section is Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, another player who has underachieved on clay. Jo will start with a tough one, against Nikolay Davydenko, and could get a better dirtballer, 10th seed Nicolas Almagro, after that.
First-round match to watch: Almagro vs. Goffin. The Spaniard is coming straight from the Houston final on Sunday, and could be ripe for an upset.
Returning: Gael Monfils, who opens against Denis Istomin.
Semifinals: Del Potro d. Berdych; Nadal d. Murray
Final: Nadal d. Del Potro