After a month long swing on the purple courts of Indian Wells and Miami, the clay court season, (when isn’t there a clay court event being played somewhere), officially kicks off with next week’s ATP Masters event in Monte Carlo. With the switch to the dirt, a whole new mindset for fans and the players takes hold as we feel a taste of the exotic just by hearing the cities the players are at. Just this week, we had Casablanca, Marbella, Ponte Vedra (oh wait’s that Florida) but you get the idea.
For those playing in Monte Carlo, it’s a chance to regroup and perhaps regain momentum as the hard courts saw several top players and their games spin wildly out of control. But one player, Rafael Nadal, who looked in control the whole time saw chances at both Indian Wells and Miami slip away to those who weren’t afraid to attack the Spainard head-on. That’s why Nadal must win a record sixth straight Monte Carlo title not only to end his almost year-long title drought but put to rest any lingering questions that he can be No. 1 again.
With Roger Federer and Andy Roddick skipping the event and with injuries sidelining Juan Martin del Potro (who may not show up until Rome, but don’t count on it), Nikolay Davydenko and Robin Soderling, this makes Nadal an even bigger favorite since many of those players had success against Nadal last year. Nadal has to like the look of his draw as the only ones who could test him early are Juan Monaco and Juan Carlos Ferrero. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is a potential quarterfinal foe, but the Frenchmen’s firepower gets muted on the clay so I would expect Nadal to win easily if they meet.
Andy Murray, given a last minute wildcard, is a potential semifinal opponent for Nadal, but don’t be surprised if Murray gets upended early. Murray admits clay is not his best surface, but his rather passive game seems suited to it. Despite this, I actually like David Ferrer, who got to the finals of Mexico a few weeks ago, to sneak into the semis as he is showing the form that got him into the top 5 a few years ago.
On the other side of the draw is top seed Novak Djokovic who, after crashing out early at Indian Wells and Miami, needs a solid run here to get his season back on track. Finally, there’s No. 4 seed Marin Cilic who, after a good run in Australia, has been quiet lately. He’s got a tough draw as he could meet up against Tomas Berdych or Fernando Verdasco in the quarters. Look for a few surprises in Cilic’s section of the draw.
With the lack of top names attending and with his somewhat uncomplicated draw, Nadal should be the clear favorite to repeat as champion. Even if Nadal meets Murray in the semis, you have to like the Spaniard’s chances in that one. And I still like Nadal in the final against possibly Djokovic, whom he beat last year. But again, we’ve seen in the last few weeks, that predicting Nadal as the obvious winner is not always the safe bet.