Djokovic hurt his ankle last Sunday in a Davis Cup match for Serbia against the United States. An MRI showed no structural damage, but recommended rest for optimum healing, according to Djokovic's website. There was also a statement that he promises to make a late decision on his ankle on whether he will play at Monte-Carlo, or if he will rest.
Regardless, his possible absence has already altered the landscape for the nuclear war on clay. The weakening of one superpower allows the other to increase his strength. Nadal is now a huge favorite to rule for a ninth consecutive year at Monte-Carlo, and this defense promises to be hot and fierce—but it loses its biggest confrontation.
There are ATP contenders looking to capitalize on this new opportunity to rise out of the rubble and seize their own rewards. They are the talented survivalists seeking more than the scraps of post-apocalyptic rations.
Which dark-horse players will arm themselves with the confidence and resourcefulness to surprise Nadal and muster the strength needed to claim the French Open title?
Who will shrink away and seek cover beneath two months of clay-court attrition?
Europe is now center stage. Get ready for fruit-filled crepes, chocolate croissants, Perrier sparkling water and logos of Lacoste, BNP Paribas and Peugeot. They’re as omnipresent as cool umbrellas during changeovers.
Nadal has turned the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters into the Little French Open. He has ruled this scenic and glitzy principality with red-clay dominance that perhaps trumps his results at the more esteemed Grand Slam venue at Roland Garros.
Every clay-court story exists in a Nadal-centric universe. Nadal fans hope for another mark in his expanding records book, but everyone else roots for one of the mortals to climb Mount Olympus and defeat Zeus. The glory and memories will reward the conqueror forever.
Since his first Monte-Carlo title in 2005, Nadal has compiled a 42-0 record and has eight consecutive titles. He’s hardly been threatened. The 2004 and 2005 finals were won in four sets (best-of-five format for title match only).
In the other 40 matches (best-of-three format) from 2005-12, Nadal won in straight sets 36 times. He has lost only four total sets while winning the other 80. In contrast, Djokovic lost four sets and finished as the runner-up. In other words, Djokovic lost as many sets in one good tournament run as Nadal has lost in eight years combined.
Murray will run, retreat and scamper on defense, but can he slide smoother to launch his counterattacks? He may have to change his strategy to compensate for fighting in enemy territory. Will he add more slice and drop shots to disrupt more natural clay-court players?
His biggest test may be between the ears. How much does he want to win on clay, and does he believe he can defeat Nadal?
Best Scenario: A win at Monte-Carlo would make him an immediate threat to win the French Open.
Almagro's powerful serve and groundstrokes give him the artillery to bother Nadal, as evidenced by their intensity-driven semifinal at Acapulco, Mexico.
He can hit through the court and push Nadal deep beyond the baseline. The problem is his inconsistency. He can look brilliant, but give it all back with a series of errors. Will he be ready to stand up to Nadal? He has an edge and attitude that needs one big day to put it all together.
Best Scenario: It would be difficult to get through Ferrer and Murray, but if he makes the final he still has to shake the 0-9 record against the King of Clay.
Berdych does not play well in windy conditions, and last year's 2012 Monte-Carlo semifinal meltdown to Djokovic foreshadowed his U.S. Open exit. Conditions need to be ideal and pressure minimum.
Still, Berdych used his big forehand to defeat Murray at 2012 Monte-Carlo, and he pushed Nadal at Rome. Will he overpower the draw, or will he implode?
The young Polish star stands at 6’8” and possesses awesome power with the serve and forehand. He succeeded on clay at the Juniors level.
This will be tennis fans' opportunity to study his maturing game on clay. Will his footwork be adequate for defense and quick-turning offense? Can he slide and show the stamina necessary to win at the top level?
Janowicz is a must-watch player for his talent and entertainment. He must keep his composure.
Best Scenario: A quarterfinal run would exceed expectations, and a semifinal run would be spectacular. Success here could arm him for bigger clay-court wins in the future.
Gasquet should be a better clay-court player. Long ago, in 2005, he took Nadal to three sets in the Monte-Carlo semifinal, and he got to the finals versus Roger Federer in Madrid. That may have been his best tennis, but he may still have late-blooming surprises.
He might be experienced enough to rise above the moment. He has great movement, an excellent backhand, plenty of topspin and patience. Will he finally put together a great Masters tournament?
Best Scenario: Coming off a semifinal appearance in Miami, Gasquet might be able to match this if Djokovic is not a factor.
Maybe del Potro will forever be the dark horse because that’s what he is.
He is dangerous on clay, as on any surface. He just might be more inspired to live up to the wild card he just received, and reignite talks once again about his next Grand Slam win.
Del Potro needs to be in peak shape and ready to scorch his shots through opponents.
Best Scenario: He could be out by the second round. If he survives the first few matches, he may get better along the way and win it all. Don't bet on it.
Why not? The lefthander is the only one to defeat Nadal since June, claiming the Chilean Open in February.
Nadal fans will point out Rafa was finding his game, but Zeballos stung some big winners in a variety of ways, including at net. He has quietly moved his ranking up to No. 39, and might ride his confidence further.
Best Scenario: He could make the quarterfinals, but any run-in against Nadal will end his tournament. Nadal will be in much better shape than in Mexico and plenty motivated for payback.
Last year, Nadal was more desperate to win Monte-Carlo. He had been reeling in his head-to-head battles with Djokovic, losing seven matches in a row, including three straight Grand Slam finals. He reasserted his confidence and clay-court mastery at Monte-Carlo.
This year, Nadal’s challenge will be to stay healthy and guard against complacency. This is the time when he looks to crush the spirits of his opponents.
It’s as much a psychological barrier to fortifying his French Open defenses as it is to win another title. He does not want Andy Murray or Juan Martin del Potro feeling he can invade his fortress at Roland Garros.
Best Scenario: Nadal will play with every expectation to win a ninth straight Monte-Carlo title. Anything less, to him, will be a failure. Is Nadal the only one who can defeat himself?