The final for the first clay ATP 1000 Masters tournament of the season will be played today in Monte Carlo. At the time of writing, the quarterfinals are lined up, with the mouth-watering prospect of Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic as a potential semi-final on Saturday. Hence, by the time you read this, only one of them would’ve advanced to the final; or in the unlikeliest of scenarios — neither.
With World Number 1 and 3, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka knocked out early, Nadal bulldozing his way into the weekend and Djokovic doing enough to get the better of his opponents, all the while Roger Federer takes a well earned rest after winning all the major silverware on offer this season — the clay court swing is already taking shape half-way into Monte Carlo.
Does this mean that we’ll see Djokovic and Nadal competing for the majority of the clay court tournaments over the next two months? If the two have already taken on each other on Saturday, we might see where their head-to-head might be going, considering that the Spaniard hasn’t beaten the Roland Garros Champion since 2014.
But let’s first talk about Murray and Wawrinka, who were mentioned in this space as the potential challengers to Nadal’s potential clay court surge this season.
While Murray struggled in the initial rounds of the Monte Carlo open last year as well, before losing in the semis, it’s safe to say he wouldn’t have lost to Albert Ramos-Vinolas any time over 2016 — definitely not after going 4-0 in the deciding set.
Murray seems to be struggling to come to terms with being the World No 1, and might have considered that achievement at a time when Federer, Nadal and Djokovic — three of the all-time greats — continue to grow stronger, an end in itself. The Scott needs to get his act together and have playing time under his belt to get his serve back, if he is to go the distance at Roland Garros after losing the final last year.
Unlike Murray, Wawrinka doesn’t need to worry about a consistent run for him to be considered a contender for majors these days. But he too won’t be best pleased with how he played in the defeat against Pablo Cuevas. Wawrinka might be eying Wimbledon glory, after having won all the other majors, and so it wouldn’t come as a surprise if he as a low-key clay season.
After an anonymous start to the season, barring the Qatar Open title in January, Djokovic would look to stop the slide that began after he completed the Career Grand Slam at Roland Garros last year. In Monte Carlo he has showed signs of improvement, despite going the distance against Gilles Simon and Pablo Carreno Busta, and a tough quarter against David Goffin and potential semi against Nadal looming at the time of writing.
His first two matches against Carreno Busta and Simon, followed a similar pattern. Djokovic went ahead early, lost the second set and could’ve easily lost either match had the opponent believed a bit more and took their chances. If Djokovic’s playing today’s final, he’s back and is a serious contender for all clay silverware. If not, he still is progressing in the right direction and should improve as he plays more matches.
Now then, with none of his traditional rivals really coming forward on clay, is Nadal ready to conquer clay once again?
Nadal won Monte Carlo last year as well and had the best start he has ever had at Roland Garros, before he was forced to pull out with injury. His ultimate goal this year, of course, would be to win that 10th French Open crown, and go past Pete Sampras to second position in the list of all-time major winners with 15. But for that to happen, he would need to bag the ATP 1000 Masters, after already playing three finals on hard this year.
Clay is usually where Nadal gets his season going, which in the past has resulted in two titles each at Wimbledon and US Open as well. For the Spaniard, this part of the season is usually make or break. The three times he has failed to win Roland Garros — 2009, 2015 and 2016 — he hasn’t ended up with much silverware in the rest of the year.
Of course, more than any statistical achievements, getting back to winning ways would allow Nadal to believe that he can still match the very best and be in contention for silverware in all conditions, and play on. With Federer showing what one can achieve at 35, Nadal would be looking to follow suit. And with no major threat coming from the Gen Next, despite the undoubted potential, Nadal needs to gauge where he stands among the likes of Murray, Wawrinka and most of all Djokovic, who have been winning most of the titles in recent years.
Nadal doesn’t have to sweep everything on clay to announce his statement of intent. But with everyone else struggling, he mightn’t have to be at his best to dominate on clay once again.