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After two months of hard-court play in North America, it can be jarring to watch the pros ply their trades on the slow surface that will consume the next two months of the tour calendar. And after two months of comfortable afternoon viewing windows in places like Long Island, Indian Wells and Miami, this European clay-court stretch will test any fan's devotion to the game—the first ball of play at the Monte Carlo Masters is struck at 5 a.m. ET/2 a.m. PT.
It will be worth setting your alarms early on Tuesday, however, because the day's first match might be its best. It features two players we could be hearing a lot from over the next few years, on both hard and clay courts. Andrey Rublev, who at 19 made his way to the US Open quarterfinals last year, was likely ready for the surface switch, having lost his last five matches on hard courts, including at a home Davis Cup tie to world No. 195 Dennis Novak. The 33rd-ranked Rublev took a step towards putting that stretch behind him with a 7-6 (7), 2-6, 7-5 first-round win over veteran Robin Haase in Monte Carlo.
The win also earned Rublev a match with Dominic Thiem, the No. 5 seed at this Masters 1000 tournament—and, arguably, the second-best clay-court player in the world. A semifinalist at Roland Garros each of the past two years, Thiem's torque-heavy groundstrokes and high-bouncing shots play right into clay's distinct qualities. The change in court was also likely welcome for Thiem—his impressive 17-4 mark includes an 8-1 record on clay, including a title in Buenos Aires. The 24-year-old also suffered a small ankle fracture at Indian Wells and withdrew from the Miami hard-court Masters tournament.
HIGHLIGHTS—Thiem wins the 2018 Argentina Open:
“I always feel good coming to clay,” Thiem told ATPWorldTour.com. “I had some issues with my ankle from Indian Wells, but I think the problems are gone. I had a good preparation first at home and some good practice with amazing players here. So I would say I’m at 98 per cent.”
Based on Thiem's history, this is the 24-year-old's time of the season to collect wins, prize money, ranking points and, perhaps most importantly, earn some more respect. Despite his success, many have been gunshy to call Thiem one of the game's true elite, and he's shown some weakness when the stages are at their brightest (just one example: his loss from two sets up to an ailing if inspired Juan Martin del Potro at last year's US Open). A great clay-court run this year, with some victories over the sport's established stars, could help change that perception.
For Thiem, whose path to the Monte Carlo semifinals alone could require wins over both Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal—both of whom he's defeated on clay—it begins with Rublev. The Austrian tamed Rublev's shots in their only meeting last fall, on an indoor hard court in Vienna, in straight sets. Given Thiem's proclivity for clay, a similar result could be in the cards in Monte Carlo. Even if that's the case, seeing what Thiem is capable of on this surface, and in the coming weeks, is worth tuning in for. A third-rounder against Djokovic, considering the Serb's overwhelming form in his opener, would be must-see.
But don't forget about Rublev, a dangerous opponent who will be playing with nothing to lose. We know what he's capable of on other surfaces, and he'll surely be looking to translate his flummoxing game to the slow stuff. That potential is also worth a watch. Set your alarms.
This Week on Tennis Channel Plus:
ATP Monte Carlo (4/15-4/22)
-Tennis Channel Plus has multi-court coverage of the 2018 Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters beginning Sunday April 16 at 7:00 AM ET, first to last ball!
WTA Dothan (4/17-4/22)
-Don’t miss the Hardee’s Pro Classic featuring Taylor Townsend and Madison Brengle live on Tennis Channel Plus beginning April 17 at 11:00 AM ET
Fed Cup (4/21-4/22)
-Tennis Channel Plus is your home for Fed Cup action! Watch live ties between USA vs. France and Germany vs. Czech Republic beginning at 6:00 AM ET on Saturday April 21
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