Rafael Nadal is knocking on the door of history once again this clay season. The Spanish world No5 can win a record-extending 10th title at three different tournaments – Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Roland Garros.
Just like his beloved Real Madrid, can Nadal finally secure his own ‘La Decima’ at the end of this clay swing in Paris?
The 30-year-old is the No4 seed at the Monte Carlo Rolex Masters this week and has been drawn in the same half as second-seeded Novak Djokovic, with a mouth-watering semi-final potentially in the cards.
Nadal has reigned supreme in the Principality from 2005-2012 and again in 2016, and is the only player to have won the same tournament nine times.
He opens his campaign against either Daniel Evans or Kyle Edmund, with No14 seed Alexander Zverev posing as the first big threat in his path, in round three. Eighth-seeded Grigor Dimitrov could await Nadal in the quarter-finals.
Nadal is second in the ATP Race to London standings behind Roger Federer, who will be out of action until the French Open end of May. They both lie second behind Jack Sock with 19 wins this season (Sock has 20) but Federer is 1,810 points ahead of Nadal at the top of the Race. The Mallorcan can catch up though with good runs in Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Madrid and Rome, where a total of 3,500 points are up for grabs.
Djokovic lost his opener in Monte Carlo last year to Jiri Vesely before he went on to win his first French Open and complete the career Grand Slam. The Serb owns a 12-3 win-loss record this season, with his only title coming in Doha in the first week of the year.
The Monte Carlo-resident is hopeful he can turn around his so far sub-par season with a good run in Monaco.
“I feel great,” the 29-year-old Djokovic told reporters on Sunday, as quoted by AFP. “It’s nice to be in a place where I spend a lot of time training. It’s home here. I spend a lot of time on these courts. It’s normal for an athlete to go through (injury) ups and downs. I trust myself and the effort I put into my game. I have to believe I’ll get the results I’m hoping for.
“All of my thoughts next week will be on this event, I won it in 2013 and 2015. I’m hoping this is the place to have a new start to the season.”
Andy Murray is the top seed in Monte Carlo for the first time and commences his assault on a maiden title there against either Gilles Muller of Luxembourg, or Tommy Robredo of Spain. In the third round, the Brit could get a rematch with Germany’s Philipp Kohlschreiber, who held seven match points against Murray in Dubai in February before surrendering.
Murray has not played since a fourth round exit in Indian Wells and missed Miami with an elbow injury.
2014 champion and No3 seed Stan Wawrinka is a possible semi-final opponent for Murray. The Swiss opens against either Mischa Zverev or Jiri Vesely (who beat Djokovic in Monte Carlo last year). New dad and No7 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga could square off with Wawrinka in the quarters.
Last year’s runner-up Gael Monfils has withdrawn from the tournament due to a left knee injury he picked up in Indian Wells.
Projected quarter-finals (by seed)
Andy Murray (GBR x1) v Marin Cilic (CRO x5)
Stan Wawrinka (SUI x3) v Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (FRA x7)
Grigor Dimitrov (BUL x8) v Rafael Nadal (ESP x4)
Novak Djokovic (SRB x2) v Dominic Thiem (AUT x6)
First rounds to watch
Pablo Carreno Busta (ESP x13) v Fabio Fognini (ITA)
Two proficient clay-courters meeting in the opening round. Carreno Busta has already reached one clay final this season, in Rio de Janeiro, while all of Fognini’s four titles won have come on the red dirt.
David Goffin (BEL x10) v Steve Darcis (BEL)
Just last week, the pair combined to help Belgium reach the Davis Cup semi-finals with victory over Italy. This will be their second tour-level meeting. Goffin won their first earlier this year in Sofia.
Daniel Evans (GBR) v Kyle Edmund (GBR)
The winner of this all-British clash earns a second round meeting with nine-time champion Rafael Nadal. It’s their first tour-level encounter but Edmund beat Evans in a Challenger in Dallas last season, on indoor hard courts.
Benoit Paire (FRA) v Tommy Haas (GER)
Tommy Haas’ farewell tour now takes him to Monte Carlo, where he faces Paire for a second time this season (the German retired in their Australian Open first round after going down two sets). If Haas completes the match, we can expect some deft touches from both sides.
Moroccan teenager and world No946 Amine Ahouda pulled off an incredible upset in just the second-ever ATP match of his career by defeating Spain’s No8 seed Marcel Granollers in the first round of the Grand Prix Hassan II in Marrakech on Tuesday.
The 19-year-old Ahouda, who is ranked 901 spots below Granollers, owns one sole match win on the Challenger tour and was playing just his second ATP tournament, having also received a wildcard in Marrakech last season.
The North African teen took out Granollers 6-4, 6-4 in one hour, 37 minutes, and next takes on Germany’s Jan-Lennard Struff in the second round.
The Casablanca-native turned pro in 2013 and peaked at No82 in the world junior rankings in 2015.
Biggest upset of a Top 50 since No. 837 Opelka d. No. 28 Anderson in Atlanta last year. https://t.co/AXe8lJUZDN— Josh Meiseles (@jmeistennis) April 11, 2017
He grew up shadowing his father, who was a tennis coach at ACSA Casablanca, and says clay is favourite surface.
Ahouda’s breakthrough victory came on the same day his compatriot world No667 Reda Al Amrani, another local wildcard, made it through to the second round when Federico Delbonis retired after dropping the first set 7-6 (3) and trailing 0-1 in the second.
Grigor Dimitrov is the top seed in Marrakech this week. He opens his campaign against Tommy Robredo on Thursday.
Tunisian Ons Jabeur is edging ever so close to becoming the first Arab woman to rank in the world’s top-100 in 15 years thanks to a strong showing at the Volvo Car Open in Charleston last week.
The 22-year-old made full use of her lucky loser spot in the main draw by reaching the third round with wins over Marina Erakovic and Magda Linette before a tight 7-5, 7-6 (6) loss to eighth-seeded Anastasija Sevastova.
Jabeur, the 2011 Roland Garros junior champion, has a 19-9 record so far in 2017 and is now up to No119 in the world rankings, just one spot short of her career-high.
She is looking to become the first Arab to rank in the WTA top-100 since her compatriot Selima Sfar last achieved that feat in 2002.
“It’s amazing to be back at my best ranking and hopefully I’ll continue like this and go even higher,” Jabeur told Sport360°.
“Charleston was a bit weird because I got off with an injury and I wasn’t sure if I was going to play the tournament or not. But then I got some treatment and I was feeling much better. And then I lost in the second round of qualifying a little bit because of the injury but I got a lucky loser spot.
“I felt like I wasn’t really out of the tournament anyway and I told my coach to ask if there’s a lucky loser spot or not and I felt I was going to make into the main draw and somehow I got the spot.
“It was a really good tournament because in the first and second rounds I played really well and in the third round (against Sevastova) I was not too far from the win. I felt I played better than her and I was kind of dominating the whole match. I felt I was really close to beating her but it was her day. I’m happy with my performance in Charleston because it could have ended in qualies but I ended up making it to the third round.
“Hopefully next time will be much better because I know I can do better.”
Jabeur is playing an $80k tournament in Indian Harbour Beach, Florida this week, where she is the No5 seed, in a stacked field headlined by Canadian Eugenie Bouchard.
The North African is aware her top-100 dream is close to becoming a reality but she is refusing to be consumed by her mission to reach that goal.
“I feel really close to the top-100 – I am actually really really close,” she said. “I am not even focusing anymore on the rankings though, I’m just focusing more on my game, how I play, and it’s been working out since the beginning of the year. So I’m not going to change anything.
“I’m just going to continue playing, no pressure. And I know that this season I am going to make it into the top-100 because I know I worked really hard.”
Jabeur is not the only one who has worked really hard and is currently reaping the rewards. Her good friend, Daria Kasatkina, claimed her maiden WTA title on Sunday in Charleston after a stellar week for the Russian teenager on clay.
“I am reallyyyy happy for her,” said Jabeur, who spent her offseason training with Kasatkina at altitude in Slovakia. “She played really good and she is on fire because she had dinner once with me there so…” joked the Tunisian.
“She really deserves to win.”
Meanwhile, Egypt’s Karim Mohamed Maamoun has hit a new career-high ranking of No272 after capturing his fifth Futures title of the season in Sharm El Sheikh.
“So happy I was able to win another title today in Sharm El Sheikh after a couple of tough matches,” Maamoun posted on his Instagram last week. “My fifth futures title this season and third in a row. Now it’s time to rest, recover and start preparing for the clay season.”
Maamoun is Egypt’s No2 behind Mohamed Safwat, who lost in qualifying in the Panama City Challenger last week and is playing in San Luis Potosi this week, where he opens against Mexican wildcard Manuel Sanchez.
Tunisian Malek Jaziri was in Davis Cup action over the weekend where he helped secure his nation’s place in the Europe/Africa zonal Group II with a whitewash over a Marcos Baghdatis-led Cyprus.
Jaziri, ranked No58 in the world, is playing the ATP event in Marrakech this week, where he faces Frenchman Jeremy Chardy in the opening round. The other two Arabs in the main draw in the Moroccan city are local wildcards Reda Al Amrani and Amine Ahouda.