Rafael Nadal's first shot at an 11th title is in Monte Carlo—a preview

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Rafael Nadal is aiming for an 11th title at the Monte Carlo Masters. (AP)

What can drive a player to win a tournament he’s already won 10 times? That’s not a question we’ve ever had to answer before in tennis, but we’ll find out on three occasions this spring, when Rafael Nadal goes for No. 11 in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and at the French Open.

Here’s a look at how Rafa’s first crack at La Undécima may go this week, in Monaco. Click here for the draw.

First Quarter

You don’t dominate a surface for 13 years without being a master self-motivator, and Nadal seems to given himself a new, simple goal for this week: finish the tournament. That may not sound like much, especially for the No. 1 player in the world. But in Rafa’s case, it would be a breakthrough. He has either withdrawn, retired or defaulted from every ATP event he’s played since the Shanghai Masters in October.

As far as psychological strategies go, Nadal’s has merit. Instead of living with the pressure of having to win the tournament again, he can take each match as it comes, and be pleased to emerge from it unscathed. In Monte Carlo, surviving for Rafa generally means winning. It also won’t hurt that Roger Federer, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka are absent, and that Novak Djokovic has been a shell of his former self so far this year.

HIGHLIGHTS—Rafael Nadal defeats Alexander Zverev in his first clay-court event of 2018, Davis Cup:

Nadal will start against either Aljaz Bedene or lucky loser Mirza Basic. After that, his path may get bumpier: he could play Karen Khachanov in the third round, and either Dominic Thiem, Borna Coric or Djokovic in the quarters.

First-round match to watch: Djokovic vs. fellow Serb Dusan Lajovic. While Djokovic has been working with old coach Marian Vajda again, he’s in one-match-at-a-time territory until further notice.

Players to watch: Coric and Thiem. Neither caught a break when they landed in Nadal’s quarter, but each has multiple wins over Rafa.

Semifinalist: Nadal

Second Quarter

Which Grigor Dimitrov will we see this week? The one who reached the quarterfinals at the Australian Open and the final in Rotterdam? Or the one who looked lost during early-round defeats in Dubai, Indian Wells and Miami? If he can find his confidence, the clay courts should help; Dimitrov, a resident of The Principality, has been to the quarters in Monte Carlo, and is 9-5 there lifetime. The first seed he could face this year is 2017 runner-up Albert Ramos-Viñolas.

Also here: David Goffin. Early upsets and an injured eye have left the Belgian just 7-4 this year, and on the verge of dropping out of the Top 10 only five months after he reached the ATP World Tour Finals in London. But a turnaround seems inevitable, and Monte Carlo seems like the logical place for it to start; he reached the semis here in 2017.

First-round match to watch: Denis Shapovalov vs. Stefanos Tsitsipas

TenniStory—Denis Shapovalov:

Semifinalist: Goffin

Third Quarter

To say Lucas Pouille has had an up-and-down start to the season would be understating the matter. So far in 2018, he has lost in the first round in Melbourne, Rotterdam and Indian Wells, won the title in Montpelier, and reached finals in Marseille and Dubai. Monte Carlo looks like another high note in the making: Pouille reached the semis here last year, and is coming off a two-win Davis Cup weekend for France.

Pouille will start against Mischa Zverev, but the bigger question may be how well he can handle Mischa’s younger brother, Alexander. Sascha is also in this quarter; will the momentum he found in Miami continue in Monte Carlo? Or will Germany’s Davis Cup defeat to Spain last weekend rob him of some positive energy? Zverev was very good in beating David Ferrer, but never found a foothold against Nadal.

Semifinalist: Pouille

Fourth Quarter

Marin Cilic, Milos Raonic, and Tomas Berdych will all be playing in their hometown this week, and they’ve all had success there in the past. Each has been to at least one quarterfinal in Monte Carlo, and Berdych was a finalist in 2015. But will any of them go deep this week? Of the three, Raonic—a semifinalist in Indian Wells and quarterfinalist in Miami—has the easiest draw. He’ll start against local wild card Lucas Catarina, while Berdych will play Kei Nishikori, and Cilic will face either Pablo Cuevas or Fernando Verdasco.

All of which may leave an opening for the No. 8, Pablo Carreño Busta, on the other side of this quarter.

Player to Watch: Kyle Edmund. The Australian Open semifinalist reached the final this weekend in Morocco, and he has the type of heavy forehand that could take him farther on dirt in the future.

HIGHLIGHTS—Kyle Edmund falls to Pablo Andujar in the Marrakech final:

First-round matches to watch: Berdych vs. Nishikori; Verdasco vs. Cuevas

Semifinalist: Carreño Busta

Semifinals: Nadal d. Goffin; Pouille d. Carreño Busta

Final: Nadal d. Pouille

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