Rafa’s Redoubt: ATP Monte Carlo Draw Preview

Will Nadal convulse in ecstasy for a ninth time in Monte Carlo?

No man ever has won nine straight titles at an ATP tournament, but no man ever has come close to defeating Rafael Nadal in Monte Carlo during the last decade.  Nadal has lost only two sets in his last six appearances in this principality perched on the Mediterranean, attaining a level of sustained brilliance that most mere mortals must struggle to imagine.

First quarter:  As he grapples with an ankle injury sustained in Davis Cup, Novak Djokovic also faces a section filled with potential challenges.  While his opener does not intimidate, he could meet a resurgent Ernests Gulbis in the third round.  Gulbis reeled off the longest winning streak of his career from February to March and can threaten even on clay when at his best, as an upset of Federer in Rome proved.  Winless outside Davis Cup until last week in Houston, Juan Monaco led the world No. 1 by a set in Rome last year.  To arrange a rematch, he would need either to solve Gulbis or reverse the result of his semifinal loss to John Isner on Saturday.   Although Isner notably extended Nadal to a fifth set at Roland Garros, becoming the only player ever to do so, neither he nor fellow towering server Milos Raonic looms as large on outdoor clay as during the rest of the season.  Djokovic’s greatest challenge probably will come from fifth-seeded wildcard Juan Martin Del Potro.  The Serb won both of their previous clay meetings, and Del Potro never has won a main-draw match in Monte Carlo.   Yet the Indian Wells runner-up holds the momentum edge against his fellow US Open champion, having ousted him in the desert, so Djokovic will need full health to withstand a rival playing his best tennis since 2009.

Semifinalist:  Del Potro

Second quarter:  Intersecting in Indian Wells and again in Miami, Tomas Berdych and Richard Gasquet could collide for a third straight Masters 1000 tournament.  Few barriers block that rubber match between the Czech who won at the former event and the Frenchman who won at the latter.  This quarter does contain a handful of clay specialists, such as Marcel Granollers and the suddenly notorious Nadal-killer Horacio Zeballos.  Of greater significance are two Italians destined to meet in the first round, both skilled on this surface but a sharp contrast in personalities.  The unseeded Fabio Fognini seeks to find his mercurial form when it matters most against Andreas Seppi, whose seeded position hinges on his ability to defend points over the next several weeks.  While those Italians lie in Berdych’s section, several powerful servers surround Gasquet.  Among them is Jerzy Janowicz, still learning how to cope with his elevated status, and the highly clay-averse Marin Cilic.  A finalist in Casablanca this week, Kevin Anderson will aim to build on that unexpected clay success in a third-round meeting with Gasquet, whom he defeated on French soil last fall.

Semifinalist:  Berdych

Third quarter:  A rematch of the 2010 final here, the possible second-round meeting between Nadal and compatriot Fernando Verdasco likely would prove little more competitive than that earlier demolition.  Despite his victory over his long-time nemesis on the blue clay last spring, Verdasco has struggled with injuries and a concomitant dip in confidence since the Australian Open.  Among the quarterfinalists there was Jeremy Chardy, a possible third-round opponent for Rafa.  Since the eight-time Monte Carlo champion dismissed early in his South American comeback, he should feel even more comfortable against him now.  Nadal also drew the least formidable of all possible quarterfinal opponents in Janko Tipsarevic, never a factor on clay and the recipient of three crushing defeats at the Spaniard’s hands.  Like Verdasco, the second-ranked Serb has accomplished virtually nothing since the Australian Open as injuries have crippled his weapons.  The flashy but raw Grigor Dimitrov and the experienced but underpowered Gilles Simon both conceal too many flaws to trouble Rafa for long.  Of course, one could say the same about all but a few players in this field.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Fourth quarter:  The highest-ranked Frenchman in the draw, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, shares a section with another man with little fondness for clay.  Although he reached the semifinals here before and even won a set from Nadal there, Andy Murray generally has produced modest results during this stage of the season except for a brilliant 2011 campaign.  He may suffer a lull after winning Miami, his first significant title since that US Open breakthrough, and occasional practice partner Stanislas Wawrinka could capitalize on a surface better suited to his strengths.  Scoring his only career victory over Federer here, Wawrinka has won both of his previous clay meetings with Murray in straight sets.  Former Roland Garros semifinalist Gael Monfils also lurks in the Scot’s vicinity, while Tsonga might encounter some resistance from two other former Roland Garros semifinalists in Nikolay Davydenko and Jurgen Melzer.  But the most dangerous opponent for the top seeds in this section probably is Nicolas Almagro, unless his run to the Houston final depletes his energies for a tournament thousands of miles away.

Semifinalist:  Almagro

Final:  Del Potro vs. Nadal

Champion:  Rafael Nadal