Tennis, in my possibly biased opinion, has the most reliable symbol of spring in sports.
Opening Day in baseball is the traditional harbinger of warmer days in the U.S., but this season it came too early. The lingering chill of a long winter has kept fans away from the park in droves thus far. Now the Masters, golf's spring “tradition unlike any other,” was revealed over the last four days as a one-trick—or one-player—pony. The only thing it takes, it seems, to rob the tournament of all tension and interest is for Tiger Woods to withdraw.
Tennis, by contrast, can never go wrong with its own entrant in the “you know it’s spring” sweepstakes. All you need is a photographer, or three, to stand at the top of the Monte Carlo Country Club and take a shot of the red clay on center court, with the blue Mediterranean beyond. That's spring to a tennis fan. Then, over the next week, we have the little bonus of the tournament itself, a traditional stop for the men since the 19th century.
These days, spring begins a day early in Monte Carlo. In the greedy spirit of expansion that grips all sports, the tournament now schedules four first-round matches on Sunday. With those results in mind, here’s a look ahead at a pretty loaded Monte Carlo draw. It’s no longer a mandatory Masters event, but there are still 1,000 ranking points for the winner. This year, that was enough to lure seven of the Top 10 to the little country by the sea. The ATP's principals are in the Principality.
Monte Carlo is Rafael Nadal’s favorite tournament, and it's played on his favorite type of clay. As usual, the event also comes at an opportune moment for him. Two weeks ago, in the Miami final, Rafa endured one of the most lopsided big-match losses in his career, to his primary rival for No. 1, Novak Djokovic. Traditionally, Monte Carlo is where Rafa puts whatever troubles he’s had that year behind him. This time he’ll try to start that process against either Teymuraz Gabashvili or Gilles Simon. Rafa beat Simon here in straight sets in 2012, though he has lost to the Frenchman once—on indoor hard courts six years ago, 8-6 in a third-set tiebreaker.
The two most intriguing names in Nadal’s quarter are No. 6 seed David Ferrer and No. 12 seed Grigor Dimitrov. Of the two, it might be Dimitrov who has the better chance of pulling an upset over Rafa. He lost to him 6-4 in the third here last spring; Ferrer has lost three times to his countryman in Monte Carlo over the years, each time in straight sets. A Dimitrov-Ferrer match in the round of 16 would be an interesting referendum on where those two men stand at the moment. So far in 2014, the 22-year-old Bulgarian has been climbing the career hill, while the 32-year-old Spaniard has said he feels like he might be heading over it.
Every player enters a draw with a question mark over his head, but the biggest in Monte Carlo belongs to Stan Wawrinka. I said after the Australian Open that he might struggle in the U.S., but that he would likely thrive again on European clay. He wasn’t at his best in the States, and he showed off some of his absolute worst in Davis Cup last weekend. Did that signal the end, finally, of his Aussie hangover? We’ll get an idea when Wawrinka plays his first match, because it won’t be easy. He gets the winner between Marin Cilic and Fernando Verdasco, each of whom has at least one title in 2014.
After that, though, this could be a friendly section for Stan. The second seed here is clay non-specialist Milos Raonic, and the next two seeds are Tommy Robredo and Nicolas Almagro. Wawa is probably the pick, primarily because there’s no one else to pick.
Already—unfortunately—out: Austrian up-and-comer Dominic Thiem, who lost to Nicolas Mahut on Sunday.
Aside from his countryman’s title in Melbourne, Roger Federer’s appearance in Monte Carlo may qualify as the surprise of the season so far. Federer has skipped the event the last two years, and three of the last four. He has already added Davis Cup to his schedule this season, and he just finished a three-match weekend for Switzerland. And, in case you've been living under a large rock, he’s 32 years old and has had back issues.
Yet Federer is here, and presumably feeling good to be on what he recently termed his “beloved clay.” But he may not have the easiest start on it: Federer will begin against either Ivo Karlovic or Radek Stepanek, irritating opponents who both own a win over him.
The highest seed on Federer’s side is Jerzy Janowicz, who hasn’t won a match since February. On the other side, though, there could be challenges. Fabio Fognini, who is coming off perhaps the biggest win of his career, over Andy Murray in Davis Cup, is here, as is Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Are we going to see the Jo-Willy who trounced Federer at Roland Garros last year, or the Jo who has mostly been Willy-Nilly so far in 2014?
First-round match to watch: Vasek Pospisil vs. Roberto Bautista Agut
Sleeper: Roberto Baustista Agut
Novak Djokovic says he’ll try a new approach to the clay season this year. In 2013, he says, he let himself get bogged down worrying about Roland Garros, rather than focusing on each tune-up event as it came. This time he’ll give the three clay Masters their due. That may be another way of saying “I’m taking it one match at a time,” but it sounds like the right plan to me.
Djokovic’s other problem in 2013 was that he peaked too early—snapping Nadal’s run of eight straight titles in Monte Carlo is a tough act to follow. But did he just do something similar, with his comprehensive win over Rafa in Miami? Did he peak too early again? I doubt it; Djokovic is still No. 2 in the rankings, a place where he has been very comfortable since last fall, and which lets him continue to think of himself as the hunter, rather than the hunted.
Nole's hunting this week should be happy, but it might not be easy. He will start against either Benoit Paire or Albert Montanes; the seeds in his section are Tomas Berdych, Alexandr Dolgopolov, and Kevin Anderson. That’s manageable for Djokovic, obviously, but Berdych did beat him on clay in Rome last season, and Dolgo has been the surprise of 2014 so far.
Already out: Ernests Gulbis, who lost to Dolgopolov on Sunday.
Also here: Gael Monfils, who opens against Anderson, is coming off a clinching fifth-rubber win for the French in Davis Cup.
Semfinals: Nadal d. Wawrinka; Djokovic d. Federer
Final: If Nadal and Djokovic do face off for the title, it’s impossible to say right now which direction their 41st match will go. Is it time for Rafa to find a new answer to the thorny questions that Djokovic’s game always poses for him? Or is Novak’s latest run in their rivalry destined to go on longer? I’m going to say, after three straight-set victories in a row, that Djokovic has at least one more win in him.
Djokovic d. Nadal