For those of us stuck back in the still-chilly northeastern United States, the sight of the Monte Carlo Country Club, and the Mediterranean beyond it, may be the surest sign we’re going to get this week that spring really has sprung. Indeed, it’s that time of year again, and the three-month sprint from now until the end of Wimbledon is the best time of year to be a tennis fan. There are big tournaments before and after it, of course, but this is when the season develops a sustained dramatic arc. As always, the Monte Carlo Semi-Masters—it’s worth 1,000 ranking points, but it’s no longer mandatory—will serve as the first act in that drama. There’s no more scenic curtain-raiser in sports, and this year all of the ATP’s lead actors will be back on the stage.

Here's a look at the draw, and where it might take us.


The lead actor, of course, is Novak Djokovic. His quest to win his first French Open will again drive the narrative on the men’s side from now until early June. As nine-time Roland Garros champion Rafael Nadal put it on Sunday, Djokovic “is the favorite to win every tournament until someone shows something different.”

Winning in Paris is Djokovic’s one and only goal, but that doesn’t diminish the importance of Monte Carlo and its fellow tune-up events in Madrid and Rome. Right now the narrative inside and outside the locker room says that Djokovic is invincible, and he wants to keep it that way. A win in his hometown event would also likely allow him to skip Madrid, as he did last year; he’d get the rest without losing the momentum.

Djokiovic’s draw in Monte Carlo doesn’t appear to be a breeze, but it could have been worse, and that might be exactly what he wants as he finds his clay legs. He’ll start against either Jiri Vesely or Teymuraz Gabashvili; could play Gael Monfils, a semifinalist here in 2015, after that; and is slated to face No. 7 seed David Ferrer in the quarters.

Sleeper: David Goffin. The Belgian just completed a breakthrough run on hard courts; if anything, his game is better suited to clay. He’ll start against Feliciano Lopez.

First-round match to watch: Alexander Zverev vs. Andrey Rublev. It's a battle of 18-year-olds, and possibly a preview of bigger encounters to come.

Semifinalist: Djokovic

While Djokovic’s story is primarily about the future, Roger Federer’s is about the moment. After recovering from knee surgery, he’ll be playing in his first event since the Australian Open, and possibly his last until the French Open—Wimbledon, the Olympics and the U.S. Open remain his main goals for the season. Whether this is just a cameo appearance or not, it will be good to have Federer back; he’ll open against either Thomaz Bellucci or Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, and could play Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarters.

“For now,” Federer says, “my objective is to make my return to play, gain a good feel, and go from there.”

Semifinalist: Tsonga


Starting Their Engines

Starting Their Engines

Has the King of Clay been reduced to a spoiler on dirt? Nadal has kept Djokovic from winning in both Monte Carlo and Paris plenty of times before, but this year, after suffering opening-round losses in Melbourne and Miami, Rafa probably isn’t thinking that far ahead.

For one thing, his draw in Monte Carlo won’t let him—this is a tough section. Nadal will start his quest for a 10th title in Monaco against either Lukas Rosol or Aljaz Bedene. If he wins that, he could face the man who beat him earlier this year on dirt in Buenos Aires, and who many have already penciled in as a sleeper pick for the French Open, Dominic Thiem. If Rafa survives that, he’s scheduled top play Stan Wawrinka, champion here in 2014, in the quarters. Stan seems due for a run, doesn’t he? He’ll open against either Borna Coric or Philipp Kohlschreiber.

Also here: An unseeded Grigor Dimitrov.

Semifinalist: Wawrinka


Poor Tomas Berdych. He keeps his head down, trains hard, takes a tough loss virtually every week, and what does he get for it? Falsely accused of hiding his money in Panama. Berdych will try to put that story behind him in time to play either Robin Haase or Damir Dzumhur in his opener, and possibly Milos Raonic after that. Berdych is defending runner-up points this week; he lost a three-set final here to Djokovic in 2015.

Toughest of all for Berdych may be the man he’s scheduled to face in the quarters, Andy Murray. For the first time in his career, Murray may be looking forward to leaving hard courts and starting the clay season. He’s coming off two disappointing early defeats in Indian Wells and Miami, and he’s coming back to a surface where he won two titles last year, and nearly reached the final of a Grand Slam, in Paris. Murray must be a little concerned about his current form—early losses anywhere are rare for him—but also more optimistic about his chances on dirt than ever. His draw in Monte Carlo should make the glass feel closer to half full. Murray starts against either Guido Pella or Pierre-Hugues Herbert, and the only seed he could play before the quarters is Benoit Paire.

Sleeper: Raonic. He's home, and he really can play on clay.

Semifinalist: Murray

Semifinals: Djokovic d. Tsonga; Wawrinka d. Murray

Final: Djokovic d. Wawrinka