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.
— ATP World Tour (@ATPWorldTour) April 14, 2018
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.
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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