The road to Roland Garros begins in Monte Carlo: A Masters preview

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Defending French Open champion Novak Djokovic needs something to get his year kickstarted. (AP)

There have already been a few tournaments on clay this month, but it doesn’t feel like the clay season—or spring, for many of us—has truly begun until we see the Mediterranean from the top of the Monte Carlo Country Club.

This is the first of the ATP’s three clay Masters 1000 events, and it’s another showcase for the depth of the men’s tour right now. Two of this year’s MVPs, Roger Federer and Nick Kyrgios, will be absent, but there’s no reason to worry. Last year’s MVPs, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, will be back after missing Miami. The road to Roland Garros starts now; let’s see who might get a head start on it.

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First Quarter

What can we reasonably expect from Andy Murray in Monte Carlo? The world No. 1—yes, he still holds that ranking—is coming back from an elbow injury, and his last match was an early-round loss to Vasek Pospisil in Indian Wells more than a month ago. But Murray was a semifinalist here last year, and looking back, he pointed to that run as the turning point for the rest of his season. Murray reached his first French Open final in 2016, and he wants to go one step farther this time around.

He’ll take his first step against one of the tour’s ageless wonders, either 33-year-old Gilles Muller or 34-year-old Tommy Robredo. Murray has to like his draw from there. Marin Cilic is the second-highest seed in his quarter, and Rafael Nadal, who beat him here last year, is safely in the other half.

Also here: Tomas Berdych

First-round match to watch: Tommy Haas vs. Benoit Paire

Semifinalist: Murray

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Second Quarter

If you’re going to pick Stan Wawrinka to win a Masters event, Monte Carlo would be it; after a dozen years on tour, it’s the only one he’s won before. Wawrinka is 19-8 at this tournament, and he’ll likely be a tough out again. His first match will be against Mischa Zverev or Jiri Vesely, who upset Djokovic in Monte Carlo last year.

The question mark in this quarter is the second seed, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. The new father, who turns 32 next week, surprised a lot of people by winning back-to-back titles over the winter, and he’ll want to regain momentum back as soon as he can with the French Open coming up, and his window for winning it closing fast. Tsonga made the semis in Monte Carlo last year.

Also here: Lucas Pouille

Semifinalist: Wawrinka

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Third Quarter

Nadal should have more momentum and confidence than anyone in the draw. He’s 19-5 on the year, and has reached the finals of the Australian Open and Miami. He also happens to be a nine-time champion in Monte Carlo. But he doesn’t have a title in 2017, and his draw won’t make getting his first any easier. Rafa could face the ever-improving Alexander Zverev, who took him to five sets in Melbourne, in his second match. After that, he’s scheduled to play Grigor Dimitrov, who also took him to a fifth set Down Under. And after that, in the semis, Nadal could face Djokovic.

First-round match for British fans to watch: Dan Evans vs. Kyle Edmund, for the right to play Rafa.

Question Mark: Dimitrov. He has gone from nearly reaching the Australian Open final in January to an early loss to Tommy Robredo this week in Marrakech. Dimitrov played a lot of tennis in 2017; does he have time to get his second wind before he finds himself knee-deep in dirt?

Semifinalist: Nadal

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Fourth Quarter

Last year, by the time Djokovic arrived back in his Monte Carlo home, he was gassed. He had done what he usually does in spring—win Indian Wells and Miami back to back—and he couldn’t muster the energy to beat Jiri Vesely in his opening match here. This year Djokovic won’t have that problem, after pulling out of Miami with an elbow injury. You never know, but I’d expect Djokovic, a two-time Monte Carlo champion, to be motivated to reclaim his No. 1 ranking after watching Federer storm through the season’s first three months. He’ll start against either Gilles Simon or Malik Jaziri, could play Pablo Carreño Busta after that, and is slotted to face either Dominic Thiem or David Goffin in the quarters.

First-round match for Belgian fans to watch: Goffin vs. Steve Darcis

Question Mark: Thiem. When he reached the French Open semifinals last year, many of us thought it was just a matter of time—and not much time at that—before he went on to win it. Should we still feel that way?

Semifinalist: Djokovic

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Semifinals: Wawrinka d. Murray; Djokovic d. Nadal

Final: Djokovic d. Wawrinka

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