Technically, the European clay-court season began Sunday at the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters, with Jordan Thompson and David Goffin starting main-draw play with respective victories over Benoit Paire and Marin Cilic. But much like the first big hit in a football game signals a game’s genuine commencement, this Thursday marked the season’s true arrival—the sober awareness that the road to Roland Garros is definitely not paved, but instead comprised largely of dirt.
It’s a bumpy path, often accompanied by chill, heat, rain, wind and, most challenging of all, one physically demanding opponent after another. As Albert II, the Prince of Monaco who has long been a frequent attendee at this event, once said, “I can’t say that every day is bliss and enjoyment.”
Fitting words for a tournament that vividly demonstrates tennis’ enchanting contradiction of elegance hosting combat. Tell it to Novak Djokovic, upset Thursday by Daniel Evans. Tell it also to Grigor Dimitrov, winner of just two games versus Rafael Nadal.
But perhaps tell it most of all on this day to Andrey Rublev and Casper Ruud—both winners, but at a considerable price. When it comes to clay, France is the literal home of the tournament all players are aiming to peak at later this spring. But as Rublev and Ruud each learned emphatically on Thursday, the spiritual home of clay court tennis has long been Spain. In a pair of matches played concurrently, with nearly parallel score lines, Rublev and Ruud each took nearly three hours to subdue a highly experienced, fit and relentless Spaniard.
The sixth-seeded Rublev beat ninth-seeded Roberto Bautista Agut, 7-6 (2), 5-7, 6-3. Ruud, ranked 27th, upset 12th-seeded Pablo Carreno Busta, 7-6 (4), 5-7, 7-5. Through thick conditions, these matches were marked by all the physicality and baseline labor that defines contemporary pro tennis. As one data point revealed, approximately 25 percent of the rallies in the Rublev-Bautista Agut match lasted nine balls or longer.
It’s also been a breakthrough week for the winners. Before this year, Rublev was only 1-3 in Monte Carlo, Ruud 0-1. Following a short time for restoration—the ice bath cometh—what is the reward for earning a three-set win over a rough-and-tumble opponent? Rublev takes on another man from Spain, in this case Nadal, who has beaten him both times they’ve played—and they’ve never played on clay. Win or lose, it will be a prime learning opportunity for the ascending Russian.
Ruud’s opponent is the reigning champion of Monte Carlo, the mercurial Fabio Fognini. Interestingly, Ruud is 2-0 vs. Fognini. Either way, this too figures to be yet another arduous clay court effort, Ruud well aware of Fognini’s wide spectrum of possibilities.
Welcome to Monte Carlo, a tax heaven for the bank account, a taxing hell for the tennis player.