They're Under Starter's Orders at Monte Carlo: But Who Can Beat Nadal?

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They're Under Starter's Orders at Monte Carlo: But Who Can Beat Nadal?
(Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

It’s a foregone conclusion, of course.

Rafael Nadal has already ordered the champagne for Sunday, when he will celebrate a record fifth Monte Carlo title on the trot. Federer will look on, as he has done for the last three years, and rue the coming of the mighty Spaniard before he was able to claim one of the big titles on clay.

It’s a scene that has become all too familiar.

Except that this year, there are a few new characters keen to share the lime-light with Rafa. Indeed, there are a couple who will have the temerity to back themselves for the title.

Andy Murray may be one, fresh from a confidence-boosting North American run. Beaten by Novak Djokovic in Monte Carlo last year, Murray has since asserted his superiority over Djokovic, most notably and most recently in Miami.

Sadly for Murray, he will have to overcome Nadal before he gets another crack at Djokovic and—well, that’s unlikely!

There are a couple of other dark horses in Murray’s quarter who could also thwart his ambitions.

Marin Cilic, now fighting amongst the big boys with a ranking of 18, looked very sharp in his opener. He has speed, reach and touch, but is he capable of keeping them all under control against Murray and then Nadal?

David Nalbandian reached the quarters here last year and, if he is in the mood and in the form to turn on his best tennis, he could go further this time.

He’s blown hot and cold in 2009—so what’s new?—but has one title and a couple of good runs under his belt. He also proved in Indian Wells that he knows how to beat Nadal. Whether his head and stamina will get him past Murray for a chance to do so is less certain.

The real unknown quantity for Murray is Nikolay Davydenko, who is coming back from injury with just a couple of tournaments behind him in 2009.

He is more than capable on clay, reaching the semis here last year, but with so little match-play, he seems unlikely to pose too many questions for Murray. However, Davydenko is a wily campaigner and will certainly be fresh.

The next question is, can anyone clear Murray’s path in Nadal’s quarter?

Lleyton Hewitt, buoyed up by his victory last week in Texas, will probably get the chance of a crack. He’s certainly a man on a mission, but Nadal has his number. Hewitt hasn’t beaten Nadal for three years—and the last time was on grass.

The only other possible contender is Juan Martin del Potro, fresh from his first rousing victory over Nadal on the hard courts of Miami. But his game is not suited to clay. Nadal’s—should there be any doubt—is.

The Argentine may even struggle to beat Gael Monfils on this surface. Come to think of it, Nadal might struggle with Monfils, who is one of the most mobile and flexible men on the tour, even without the help of the loose clay surface.

However, Nadal has both mobility and enormous power, so must be odds on to win through this half of the draw.

So will it be Federer—again—challenging Nadal for the title?  He’s not made a final since Melbourne and would undoubtedly love to make another here. He will, most likely, also claim he can win the title.

Before he can prove that, he will have a handful of serious matches against men who arrive at the Med with some clay already in the grooves of their shoes.

Tommy Robredo has two clay court titles in his pocket this year, from Brazil and Argentina. He continues, slowly but surely, to climb the world rankings—No.14 and counting—and could make a real showing here this year. He has to beat Gilles Simon first, but that is just possible.

A Federer-Robredo match-up could produce some beautiful all-court tennis with plenty of elegant shot-making, so for that reason alone, it’s tempting to pick the Spaniard over Simon.

Is there anyone else who can trip up Federer in this quarter?

Well, Stanislas Wawrinka comes into Monte Carlo from a good run in North America, and has a proven record on clay—he was a finalist in Rome last year.

They’ve not met since Dubai three years ago, so their head-to-head is barely relevant. If, though, Wawrinka can shake off the awe he has for his compatriot, he might just cause Federer a few problems. But awe can weigh heavy between the ears. On balance, it’s unlikely.

And so to Federer’s biggest barrier to reaching the final.

Novak Djokovic is no slouch on clay. His style of play suits the sliding surface, enabling him to switch from side-to-side and also to skim forward with great ease. And he will rate his chances against the Federer who collapsed against him in Miami.

By the same token, Federer will be keen to reclaim the upper hand. Indeed it’s tempting to put his last-minute entry to this event down, in no small part, to that uncharacteristic performance.

Before a possible rematch against Federer, Djokovic faces David Ferrer or Fernando Verdasco. The former is so at home on clay—and such a dogged competitor—that it would take a brave person to count him out.

Verdasco, though with a poor record at Monte Carlo in the past, is a different player this year. The prospect of a head-to-head with Ferrer is one to relish. It’s doubtful that Djokovic would enjoy an encounter with either unless his health is back in full working order.

So Monte Carlo could be lining up a pair of semi-finals between the best four in the world. It could be lining up a four-in-a-row final showdown between the best two in the world.

But along the way, there is the potential for just a couple of upsets. A Davydenko-Verdasco final, anyone?

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