“If there’s one sportsman I admire outside the game of tennis, it’s Tiger Woods. When he’s at his best, I see in him what I would like to be myself. I like that winning look when he plays, and I like most of all his attitude, his way of facing up to the moments of crisis when a game is won or lost. He might hit a bad shot and get angry with himself, but the next time he squares up to hit the ball, he’s back in focus.”
When tennis fans think of Tiger Woods, we typically think of him in conjunction with Roger Federer. A decade ago, the two longtime IMG clients and Nike endorsees had a friendly rivalry going as to who was the more commanding figure in his respective sport. That discussion went the way of Woods’ cranky back years ago, but after he won his first major title since 2008 at The Masters on Sunday, comparisons between the 43-year-old American and the equally ageless 37-year-old Swiss began to bubble up again.
Yet the words quoted above aren’t Federer’s; they come from the 2011 autobiography of another Tiger-esque sporting figure, Rafael Nadal. If Federer is Woods’ closest parallel in tennis, Nadal is the game’s biggest Tiger fan. You can see Woods' influence in Rafa’s ultra-serious game face, which he never drops, and his ultra-purposeful between-point stride. If anything, though, the student has surpassed the teacher over the years; Woods’ 15th major still leaves him two short of Nadal’s 17. The last time Woods won The Masters was in 2005; soon after, Rafa won his first title in Monte Carlo, and he’s won 10 more since.
While Woods was striving to end an epic dry spell last week, Nadal has a very different task ahead of him this week: Continuing an epic spell of dominance. How do you muster up the determination to win a tournament you’ve already won 11 times? Maybe Rafa can take some inspiration from seeing that famous Tiger stride again at Augusta.
“Its not his swing so much, or even the way he strikes the ball. It’s his clearheadedness, his determination, his attitude. I love it.”
Here’s a look ahead at what awaits Rafa as he goes for La Duodécimo in Monte Carlo.
If Nadal needs any extra motivation in Monaco, he can find it right at the top of the draw. Novak Djokovic—Monte Carlo resident, world No. 1, and winner of the last three Grand Slam titles—is the top seed. Djokovic is also the player who soundly thumped Nadal in the Australian Open final three months ago, and who will be the biggest threat to knocking him off his seemingly permanent throne at the French Open. The winner of a possible Nadal-Djokovic final in Monte Carlo will have leg up in the race to the next major.
But like Rafa, Novak comes into Monte Carlo with some questions hanging over his head. He was mediocre in Indian Wells and Miami, and it has been three years since he was a serious factor on clay. He’ll need to be better to make it through a quarter that includes Daniil Medvedev, Kyle Edmund, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Diego Schwartzman, Philipp Kohlschreiber and Stefanos Tsitsipas. The Greek, who beat Djokovic in Toronto in 2018, began to show what he could do during last spring’s clay season.
Potential second-round match to watch: Djokovic vs. Philipp Kohlschreiber. The German stunned the Serb in Indian Wells last month.
Nadal and Djokovic begin this clay-court season as the front-runners in the race to Paris, but Dominic Thiem could easily pull alongside of them with a strong result in Monte Carlo. The Austrian reached the Roland Garros final last year, and recorded perhaps the biggest win of his career, over Federer, in the Indian Wells final in March. Surprisingly, Thiem has never been past the quarterfinals in Monte Carlo; that run of relative futility would seem destined to end this week. The other three seeds in this section are Karen Khachanov, Nikoloz Basilashvili, and David Goffin. None of them are slouches, obviously, but all of them are players Thiem should elevate past during this clay season.
Alexander Zverev has stumbled out of the gate in 2019, but so far he’s been able to hang on to his lofty No. 3 ranking. Now, though, it’s crunch time for the German, who largely built that ranking during the clay season last year. In 2018, he reached the semis in Monte Carlo, won Madrid, and made the final in Rome. With that in mind, Zverev got his clay season off to an earlier start in Marrakech last week, but his loss to unseeded Jaume Munar doesn’t bode particularly well for his chances going forward.
Still, Zverev has risen from the depths before. Can he do it again in a section that includes Borna Coric, Fabio Fognini and last year’s Monte Carlo finalist, Kei Nishikori?
Wild card to watch: Felix Auger-Aliassime. The Canadian teenager opens against Argentine qualifier Juan Ignacio Londero. The winner faces Zverev.
Like Djokovic, Nadal hasn’t been quite himself since Melbourne. He lost to Nick Kyrgios in Acapulco, before aggravating his chronically achy knee in Indian Wells. But clay is the great healer for Rafa, and of the top four seeds, he would seem, at first glance, to have the easiest road to the semifinals. The other three seeds in this section are Marin Cilic, Marco Cecchinato and Denis Shapovalov; none would appear to be an immediate threat to the King of Clay. But there are two under-the-radar players here who might be.
The first is Stan Wawrinka. He won Monte Carlo in 2014, has a 20-9 record there, has beaten Rafa on clay, and appears, finally, to be rounding into his old form. Now the world No. 36 just needs to get his ranking high enough to be seeded again. A run to the quarters, and a showdown with Rafa, would help.
The second unseeded player to watch is Roberto Bautista Agut. RBA has upset Djokovic twice in 2019, and reached his first Grand slam quarterfinal, in Australia. If he beats John Millman on Monday, he’ll get a shot at Nadal in the second round.
Semifinals: Thiem d. Tsitsipas; Nadal d. Nishikori
Final: Nadal d. Thiem