Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Dominic Thiem land in loaded quarter of the draw - Monte Carlo preview

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The first of three Masters 1000 clay tournaments begins on Sunday as stars of the ATP tour take to the courts of the Monte Carlo Country Club, looking to stop Rafael Nadal from clinching a record-extending 11th trophy there.

Last year, Nadal won a 10th Monte Carlo Masters crown by defeating his fellow Spaniard Albert Ramos-Vinolas in the final and, at 30 years and 10 months old, became the oldest champion in the Open Era at the tournament.

The Mallorcan is 63-4 win-loss in Monte Carlo and shares the record of most Masters 1000 titles won (30) with Novak Djokovic.

The draw for this year’s event was revealed on Friday.

Here’s a look at the main talking points ahead of the action on the red dirt of the Principality.

A TALE OF TWO HALVES

A quick glance at the draw and you realise how lop-sided it is.

A stacked top quarter houses Nadal and Djokovic – the only two former champions in the draw – along with Dominic Thiem, Borna Coric, Thanasi Kokkinakis, Karen Khachanov and Andrey Rublev.

Sharing with them the top half are fourth-seeded Grigor Dimitrov and sixth-seeded David Goffin.

Australian Open and Wimbledon runner-up Marin Cilic headlines the bottom half, together with Rome champion Alexander Zverev.

Three of the four semi-finalists from last year’s edition are in the top half, which will no doubt be an absolute clay blood bath.

Nadal will open against either Slovenian Aljaz Bedene or a qualifier before a potential second round against Roger Federer’s Miami conqueror Kokkinakis or Russian big hitter Khachanov.

Two-time champion Djokovic is seeded No. 9 in Monte Carlo and is a potential quarter-final opponent for Nadal. Thiem the No. 5 seed and two-time French Open semi-finalist or Croatia’s Coric, who made the semis and quarters in the opening two Masters 1000 events of the season, could also face Nadal in the last-eight.

THE DOMINIC EFFECT

Thiem posed the biggest threat to Nadal on clay last season and should once again take over that role this upcoming stretch. But while the 24-year-old Austrian has already shown his mettle on the surface, and defeated Nadal twice in seven clay meetings, Thiem’s record in Monte Carlo is a poor 3-4 win-loss.

His best showing in Monaco so far has been reaching the third round in 2016.

He may have to defeat the likes of Rublev and Djokovic before a potential quarter-final showdown with Nadal. Thiem and Nadal faced off four times on European clay last year (in Barcelona, Madrid, Rome and Paris).

Will we get an early taste of this clay masterpiece next week?

DJOKOVIC’S DAUNTING DRAW

The draw gods have not been kind to Djokovic in Monte Carlo with the Serb’s possible path looking like this:

R1: Qualifier; R2: Coric/Benneteau; R3: Thiem/Rublev; QF: Nadal; SF: Goffin/Dimitrov; F: Zverev/Cilic

Accompanied by his former coach Marian Vajda in Monte Carlo, Djokovic will be looking to snap a three-match losing streak and capture a first match victory since January.

TOP SPOT

Nadal must defend his Monte Carlo title if he wants to keep his No. 1 ranking. Any other result and the Spaniard will relinquish the summit to Federer, who is just 100 points behind Nadal in the rankings and will not be playing again until the grass season in June.

FIRST ROUNDS TO WATCH

Tomas Berdych (CZE x12) v Kei Nishikori (JPN)

Nishikori will be playing Monte Carlo for the first time since 2012 and just the second time in his career. He has only ever played three matches at the tournament and incidentally, his last clash there was a three-set defeat to Berdych, who takes on the Japanese in the opening round next week.

The 28-year-old is unseeded as his ranking has slipped to 39 in the world due to injury. He leads Berdych 4-1 head-to-head but all four wins over the Czech came on hard courts.

Berdych, a Monaco resident, was runner-up to Djokovic in Monte Carlo in 2015. He is down to No. 18 in the world and needs to do better than his last-16 showing from 2017 if he wants to gain ranking points next week.

Thanasi Kokkinakis (AUS) v Karen Khachanov (RUS)

Kokkinakis received a wildcard into the Monte Carlo draw with his ranking still a low 148 following a long battle with injuries that halted his progress over the past three years.

The 22-year-old Aussie stunned Roger Federer in the Miami second round last month and is starting to show the kind of form that made him such a promising prospect back in 2015 when he peaked at 69 in the world as a teenager.

This will be his first meeting against the 21-year-old Khachanov, who is ranked No. 40. Kokkinakis is making his tournament debut while Khachanov is making his second main draw appearance.

It could be an interesting battle between two young talents boasting big games.

PROJECTED QUARTER-FINALS

Rafael Nadal (ESP x1) v Dominic Thiem (AUT x5)

Grigor Dimitrov (BUL x4) v David Goffin (BEL x6)

Lucas Pouille (FRA x7) v Alexander Zverev (GER x3)

Pablo Carreno Busta (ESP x8) v Marin Cilic (CRO x2)

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Davis Cup revamp plans met with outrage by players who offer no better solutions

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Hometown hero: David Ferrer sealed the tie for Spain in Valencia.

The outrage over the ITF’s proposed changes to the Davis Cup was amplified last weekend as players and fans slammed the pending move to get rid of home and away ties in the sport’s only official men’s inter-nation team competition.

The ITF announced in February plans to completely overhaul Davis Cup, which has been suffering for years due to scheduling issues, lack of top players participation and many other problems.

Dependent on a vote set to take place at this August’s Annual General Meeting in Orlando, Florida, the Davis Cup World Group could change starting next year.

Instead of being contested as home-and-away ties spread out throughout the season, the proposed format would bring together 18 nations in one neutral venue – possibly in Asia – at the end of November, to create an event described as a “World Cup of tennis”. This new version comes along with a $3bn sum from investment group Kosmos, founded by Barcelona and Spain footballer Gerard Pique.

Stars like Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have welcomed the idea while many others like Lucas Pouille and Lleyton Hewitt have been very vocal in their strong opinions against it.

“I think it’s a death sentence to the Davis Cup,” said reigning Davis Cup champion Pouille in Dubai two months ago.

With the World Group quarter-finals taking place last weekend, many took to social media citing the buoyant atmosphere in Valencia for the Spain-Germany tie, and in Genoa for the Italy-France showdown as arguments against the proposed changes.

“Greetings to Dave Haggerty, this is Davis Cup,” Germany captain Michael Kohlmann referred to ITF president David Haggerty in his on-court interview after his side stunned Marc and Feliciano Lopez in doubles in an epic five-setter last Saturday.

“Are you serious @ITF_Tennis ??? You’re trying to kill off home & away ties, 5 set tennis and this unbelievable atmosphere! This is what representing your country is all about. #Pride #Passion #VoteNo,” tweeted Australia captain Hewitt.

Pouille echoed the Aussie’s sentiments, saying: “Who’s watching Spain vs Germany?? Still want to kill the Davis Cup? Just have a look at the atmosphere… #INCREDIBLE.”

Spain versus Germany indeed had all the makings of a great tie.

It was played in front of a 10,500-capacity crowd throughout the weekend, with a non-stop marching band laying down the soundtrack for the action. It featured an all-top-10 showdown between Rafael Nadal and Alexander Zverev on Sunday. It witnessed an incredible five-set upset by Tim Puetz and Jan-Lennard Struff over the Lopezes to give Germany a 2-1 lead. Then featured a 4+hour tug of war between David Ferrer and Philipp Kohlschreiber in the decisive rubber that sealed the comeback for the Spaniards.

No one can deny that it was a compelling weekend of tennis.

But how often does a tie like this attract a global audience? German television didn’t even air this tie live on TV, it was only available via streaming service DAZN.

The problem with Davis Cup is beyond filling out one arena and having three days of tight, passionate tennis.

Tennis is a business, and it needs money to survive. Yannick Noah said in an interview with L’Equipe that the ITF and players shouldn’t be swayed by money. That’s easy to say for a Frenchman since the French Tennis Federation makes a lot of money from Roland Garros and Noah undoubtedly receives a generous salary for his position as France captain.

The $3bn from Kosmos includes funds directed at grassroots initiatives for ITF member nations, which would grow the sport around the world. The four countries that host Grand Slams are at a completely different level when it comes to wealth. They are the exception, not the rule.

Sport in general doesn’t make the majority of its money from selling tickets, it makes it by selling TV rights, acquiring sponsorship and from merchandising. The current structure of Davis Cup, where ties, locations and participants are not known in advance makes it very difficult to sell the TV rights and attain sponsorship.

Obviously the home-and-away ties make for unrivaled atmosphere – a neutral venue can never replicate that, but on a global scale, these matches aren’t received that way.

Top player participation would guarantee interest globally. The Nadal-Zverev clash was the first between two top-tenners in over two years in Davis Cup.

You know something is flawed if it rarely features clashes between the best of each nation. Of course the fact that Davis Cup gives the opportunity for lower-ranked players to become heroes in their countries is great. But there’s always a bigger picture to look at.

A couple of main issues with the proposed changes is the timing of the event – end of November is a terrible idea and the start of April sounds like a far better solution. Also taking this event to Asia shouldn’t be the top priority because it’s obvious that Europe remains the epicentre of tennis and is more accessible to fans.

People are slamming the proposal but few of them are coming up with a better solution. Tennis is allergic to change so the fact that the ITF is going out on a limb here and is finally doing something about a competition that continues to struggle can only be positive.

Of course the ITF and the voting federations should listen to the players, but said players must also come up with better options, because vetoing something without having an alternative is just pointless.

The new proposal has issues. They should be addressed. But the thought of avoiding change altogether serves no one.

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Moroccan world No. 617 Lamine Ouahab shocks Philipp Kohlschreiber to reach Marrakech second round

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Magnificent in Morocco: Lamine Ouahab (Photo credit: Ouarrak Abdessamiaa)

No stranger to springing surprises at home on his beloved clay, Algerian-turned-Moroccan Lamine Ouahab struck once again on Wednesday in Marrakech as he upset world No. 34 Philipp Kohlschreiber, who is 583 spots higher than him in the rankings.

The 33-year-old Ouahab was a standout junior, who beat Rafael Nadal en route to the Wimbledon boys’ singles in 2002, and also made the Roland Garros junior semis.

He peaked at No. 114 in the ATP rankings back in 2009 but hasn’t been playing consistently throughout the years, at times seemingly competing only part-time.

His last ATP main draw match, prior to Wednesday, came in April 2016 and his last Challenger main draw clash was in September 2016.

But lack of match play and a lower ranking were never a problem for Ouahab when it comes to facing tougher opposition at ATP tournaments or in Davis up.

He is used to punching above his weight and owns 15 victories against top-100 opponents throughout his career, most recently easing past Georgian world No. 57 Nikoloz Basilashvili in a Davis cup Group II Zonal tie last February in Marrakech. In 2015, Ouahab shocked Robin Haase and the then world No. 24 Guillermo Garcia-Lopez en route to the quarter-finals in Casablanca. He was ranked No. 313 in the world that week.

Currently No. 617 in the world and competing in his first ATP main draw match in two years, Ouahab came back from a set down, and climbed from 2-5 in the decider to stun Kohlschreiber 2-6, 6-0, 7-6 (3) and reach the second round in Marrakech on Wednesday.

Kohlschreiber was coming off a tough weekend where he lost a heartbreaking five-setter to David Ferrer in the decisive fifth rubber in the quarter-final tie between Spain and Germany in Valencia.

“Obviously I’m very happy to win a match like this, especially at home. I’m very proud I was able to put up a fight and get through it,” Ouahab told Sport360.

“For me it’s a big opportunity to play these players. Maybe my ranking got lower because I’m not playing consistently but I believe I have the level to beat these guys, especially on a given match day. I’m very confident and try my best to win every match.”

They say lightning only strikes once but for Ouahab, it strikes once every couple of years. How does he manage to step up his game like that when he rarely competes at that level and at such tournaments?

“It’s harder but things haven’t been easy for me throughout my career. I’m used to dealing with this stuff,” he says. “I’m going to try harder to be more consistent and try to fight and not give up.

“I’m always very happy to play at home. The crowd helped me a lot today. It’s an opportunity, I only get to play home once or twice a year, at this tournament and maybe Davis Cup, so I have to use these chances and try to win, to make myself happy and the people watching as well.”

Wednesday’s victory means Ouahab has already jumped 100 spots up the rankings and he’s hoping to keep things going. But he’s not burdening himself by setting any concrete ranking goals, although playing more tournaments seems like a priority for him this season.

“This year I’m just trying to enjoy my tennis and play as many tournaments as I can,” he explains. “I’m trying to play the whole year, to be fit and to play maybe 25 or 30 tournaments.

“The more matches I win this week, the more it’s going to help me not go through the smaller tournaments again. It’s tough mentally after beating a top-100 player and playing this tournament to then go back and play the smaller ones. The more I win this week, the easier it’s going to be for me.”

Even though he’s not regularly around the tour, Ouahab is a familiar figure to many players around the circuit, who all remember him from his junior days (he was ranked as high as No. 4 in the world as a junior).

“I think people know I can beat these kind of players. I’ve done it before. I grew up with so many of these players on tour. Even though they’re ranked better I am, we know each other very well,” he added.

Ouahab faces Basilashvili in the second round in Marrakech, with one eye firmly set on the quarter-finals. Can he make it 2-0 against the Georgian this season? It’s a genuine possibility!

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