Rafael Nadal, Stanislas Wawrinka and the Winners and Losers at 2014 Monte Carlo

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistApril 21, 2014

Rafael Nadal, Stanislas Wawrinka and the Winners and Losers at 2014 Monte Carlo

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    Julian Finney/Getty Images

    Stanislas Wawrinka and Rafael Nadal were once again creating Bizarro-history at the 2014 Monte Carlo Masters. Guess who is once again holding the trophy?

    It was a fantastic week of clay-court action at perhaps the most beautiful venue in all of tennis. And it witnessed wonderful success by the likes of David Ferrer and Roger Federer.

    Two shocking stories really dominated the week and could have repercussions through the French Open. Nadal was mortal at Monte Carlo, and Novak Djokovic can only hope to recover from his loss.

    Dive into the Monte Carlo-aftermath edition of the "Winners and Losers" of tennis. This is where we examine the unusual, disappointing and triumphant happenings in tennis.

Loser: Rafael Nadal

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    Michel Euler

    The King of Clay has not found his game in Monte Carlo. Never mind the shorter groundstrokes and more feeble forehand. Plenty has been written about his technical difficulties with his meek quarterfinals loss to David Ferrer.

    Right now, Nadal is not the confident Nadal fans have seen for most of the past decade. This has not been a sudden, knee-jerk observation, but a gradual regression in his play for several months now. Other than the Australian Open semifinal, Nadal has not handled Top 10 players.

    But we will have a Nadal feature midweek to examine more of his future.

    Nadal's loss does overshadow one Nadal antic that is deserving of this week's Burnt Bagel award. There's no rationalization about it, unless you believe a burnt bagel is really a chocolate croissant.

    In his second-round match versus Teymuraz Gabashvili, and leading 4-0 in the second set, Nadal took extra time to serve following a 24-shot rally of which he lost. He was given his second time violation of the match from respected chair umpire Pascal Maria. He lost the second serve and was later broken. He then wagged his finger and barked at Maria, upset that an exception couldn't be made.

    During the Indian Wells tournament, SI.com reported on Nadal's distaste for strict adherence to the 25-second rule between serves. Nadal called this "a disaster." In the article, Nadal explained that players need more rest between long, grueling rallies. He said the consequences will be diminished tennis quality:

    The rules go against the great points of tennis...The best points of the season are long rallies and amazing points. With this 25 seconds, you play a long rally and you think you can play another long rally next point? No. So go against the good tennis.

    So here we are again. It's nothing new in the turf war between Nadal and the time clock, but a rule is a rule. If a rule does not work in the best interests of tennis, then it should be changed. But right now it seems that only Nadal is having issues.

    Perhaps it's time for a "service shot clock" as used in NBA basketball, clearly visible and with a buzzer. The player could see the time and the penalty be allotted with no disputations.

Winner: David Ferrer

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    Michel Euler

    Maybe David Ferrer really does not resemble former Spanish tennis doubles star Emilio Sanchez. Maybe he is not the Energizer Bunny. But for the first time in a decade, he finally defeated Rafael Nadal on clay, 7-6(1), 6-4 at Monte Carlo. The only thing that would have topped this would have been winning the French Open final last year.

    Ok, so this was only the quarterfinals and 2014 Nadal is not 2013 Nadal, but Ferrer took over the inside of the baseline and punished Nadal's short deliveries, which was a true measure of irony.

    Unfortunately for Ferrer, he was bullied by Stanislas Wawrinka 6-1, 7-6(3). The first 18 minutes of the match was so one-sided that Wawrinka was slamming his 10th winner while Ferrer was already staring at a 0-4 deficit with zero winners. It was like watching the school bully eat a second grader's lunch, take his Legos and autograph his iPad with permanent marker.

    So getting whitewashed by Wawrinka takes a little luster off his "Winner" tag, but expectations are relative.

Losers: The Usual Suspects

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    Julian Finney/Getty Images

    We think they can win big, but even their best leaves us hungry.

    We give them some press and tune into their budding momentum just as it has already vanished.

    Wash, rinse, repeat.

    These are the "The Usual Suspects," featuring the likes of any Top 20 player outside the Big Three, Andy Murray, Stanislas Wawrinka and David Ferrer (consistency is not his problem).

    This week, Grigor Dimitrov got plastered by Ferrer 6-4, 6-2. He will get his chance to win Bucharest as the No. 1 seed. We'll see.

    Milos Raonic got to the quarterfinals but got dropped by Wawrinka 7-6(5), 6-2. Have serve, but seeking creativity.

    Tomas Berdych was humbled by Guillermo Garcia-Lopez in the third round, losing the final two sets 6-3, 6-1. What happens when an old record gets caught in the same groove?

    Alexandr Dolgopolov also suffered from the Garcia-Lopez treatment one round earlier, 6-1, 7-5. Goodbye hard courts.

    Marin Cilic only won 21 points, losing 6-0, 6-2 versus Wawrinka. He is still chewing his bagel.

    The Usual Suspects might be "Winners" next week or completely invisible. We just don't know. The story is the same, but the names bounce along on a wheel of tennis roulette.

    They are all incredibly gifted world-class athletes, but there is room for only a select few to grab the spoils. We can still appreciate and enjoy their contributions to filling competitive draws week in and month out. We will also be ready and willing to give them props when they earn those rare moments to bask in the sun.

Winner: Monte Carlo Retro Look at 2001

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    The 2014 Monte Carlo final was contested by two players that use the single backhand. It was the first time this has happened since 2001. Let's take a trip back in time to look at that Monte Carlo Masters tournament.

    The ATP certainly had more more parity. Six of the 16 seeds for Monte Carlo were defeated in the first round, including No. 1 Marat Safin.

    Five more of these seeds were out in Round 2, including No. 3 seed Magnus Norman, the current coach of 2014 winner Stanislas Wawrinka.

    The single-backhanded finalists were No. 2 seed Gustavo Kuerten and journeyman Hicham Arazi, "The Moroccan Magician," who would complete this career-best season ranked No. 22. Arazi had excellent skills with a soft touch and left-handed game but was inconsistent. He defeated several top players in his time including Andre Agassi and Safin. He swept Roger Federer in the opening round of the 2002 French Open.

    Kuerten defeated Hirazi 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 for his second and last title at Monte Carlo. He went on to win his third and final French Open championship.

    Maybe Norman can take some solace in Wawrinka's 2014 title.

Loser: Boris Becker

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    Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

    In 1995, clay king Thomas Muster posted one of the most incredible clay streaks in tennis history. He won 11 titles and swept through the spring season in the midst of a 40-match winning streak. It's all in the archives now, but how many tennis fans remember that Muster had a close call at Monte Carlo? Boris Becker remembers all too painfully.

    Becker was ready to win his first-ever clay-court title. In the Monte Carlo final, he won the first two sets against Muster. He led 6-4 in the fourth-set tiebreaker.

    Then the implosion, which is described (along with the following two quotes) from The Independent: Becker double-faulted his first match point. He netted a forehand in the next point. He lost the next two points, and then got bagled in the fifth set in only 22 minutes.

    All told, Becker had 82 unforced errors. "I had all the chances in the world. But he didn't give up." The Tennis Space listed this match as one of the greatest 10 chokes of all time.

    Muster, who was cleared to play after suffering dehydration from his semifinal match, had 24 unforced errors. "I don't know how I won the match," he said.

    It was the third and last defeat in the Monte Carlo final for Becker, and he would never win a clay-court title.

    Nineteen years later, Becker is one of the coaches for Novak Djokovic, and things have not gone well with the legendary redhead looking on from the sidelines. It would be quite harsh to blame Becker for Djokovic's bad luck with a wrist injury, so we will stop short of calling this "The Curse of Boris."

    But the fact remains that Becker is walking out of Monte Carlo, still searching for at least a share of a clay-court title.

Winner: Monte Carlo Masters

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    Lionel Cironneau

    Time for a quick changeover.

    Is there a more beautiful tennis venue on the ATP Tour? Monte Carlo is breathtaking above the ocean, perched atop an escarpment and offering its glamorous vista to tennis club patrons and TV viewers from around the world. It's the quiet and dignified section of an otherwise glitzy, bustling scene of classic and expensive European taste.

    If Wimbledon's lawns are the standard of tennis heaven, Monte Carlo is a nice red-clay consolation prize. The deep, brick orange is bordered wonderfully by the green seating and decor. Elegant white lettering from brands like fashion king Faconnable are elegantly penned.

    But are the umbrella boys and girls now history? During the changeovers, players are no longer shaded by a child holding up a large umbrella. Now the benches have a retractable covering that is lifted over the player as he sits for a quick rest. So one piece of tradition has now ended.

    The tennis continues to be first class no matter the contestants. It's a timeless window into each successive year, showing off tennis styles, attire and living ghosts of what we will one day remember. How can fans not enjoy the pure spectacle of Roger Federer whipping his forehand behind a scampering Stanislas Wawrinka?

    All this competitive serenity is found in mid-April each year, high above the blue sea and beneath the watchful protection of the Maritime Alps.

Loser: Novak Djokovic's Wrist

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    Claude Paris

    Injuries are the tragic side to sports. They're every athlete's greatest fear, and they can strike without warning. There's never a good time for injuries, but particularly now for Novak Djokovic with the clay-court season now in session.

    He showed up for his semifinal match versus Roger Federer wrapped up from wrist to elbow in a bulky kind of soft cast. Not even Boba Fett would want to play tennis this way.

    But Monte Carlo's semifinal loss might be the least of his problems. With full medical analysis pending, Djokovic could possibly sit out Madrid and Rome and miss Grand Slam participation, according to The Irish Times. Even if he returns by late May, will he be able to compete at 100 percent?

    Djokovic's chase for the No. 1 ranking also lost 220 points this week, despite Rafael Nadal's quarterfinals exit. However, this seems trivial compared to the French Open jeopardy he faces.

    If he cannot compete for his first French Open title, it will be a big blow to the Serbian. He is nearing his 27th birthday, and Father Time has a way of quickly shutting windows that seem wide open. We just don't know how many more times he can stroll into Roland Garros as arguably the best player in the world. If he cannot compete in 2014, it will be a terribly cruel twist of fate.

    It comes just after his recent mastery of clay king Nadal. Djokovic has had Nadal in his crosshairs, and the Spaniard has been reeling, at least in the relative clay world of Nadal.

    Maybe the tennis gods are only pining for a little extra drama. But if they have ears for Djokovic, he would only ask for a healthy right wrist and the chance to chase his French Open holy grail.

Winner: Roger Federer's Wild-Card Run

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    Michel Euler

    Roger Federer entered Monte Carlo as a late-entry wild card. We postulated that this could help him create some clay-court momentum, and in this regard it was a successful week for the Swiss Maestro.

    It was a chance to get his feet acclimated to the red brick surface. He was able to get more work with his newer, larger racket. And more wins certainly creates additional confidence and momentum going forward.

    Unfortunately for Federer, he couldn't close the door in the final versus compatriot Stanislas Wawrinka. He held a one-set lead and could have clinched his first Monte Carlo title with a strong second-set tiebreaker, but it all slid away with only red dust to mark the attempt. Maybe the raindrops midway in the second set were an ominous foreboding to his championship parade.

    The success of Federer's week was watching him mix in his all-court magic. He blended in plenty of slice and directional changeups from the baseline. His backhand was solid. He hounded the net and disrupted the rhythm of his opponents. He had Wawrinka in fits for most of their match.

    Federer's clay-court guile allows him to shorten points and take away opponents' baseline punch. He also showed his quick anticipation and scrambled with enough defense that can win the French Open.

    But in the final set, Wawrinka found the zone, and Federer was glued to the baseline. That was the match.

    Federer definitely reminded the tennis world that he is a contender for the French Open title. And with the unpredictable chaos of 2014, he could be right there.

    It would also be great to see Federer come back to Monte Carlo in 2015. He has to feel good, even with the unsavory disappointment of his final.

Loser: Injuries Cloud 2014

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    Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    We discussed Novak Djokovic's wrist injury, but taking stock of 2014 past and future, injuries are at least the underlying factor behind the tennis chaos.

    Rafael Nadal's blister and back were big stories in the Australian Open. It led to a bizarre and ugly final. How much effect has it had on the Spaniard's current struggles?

    Juan Martin del Potro had more wrist problems and could miss several more months. So much for everyone's favorite dark-horse contender.

    David Ferrer injured his left thigh muscle and missed Indian Wells. He seems to have recovered his groove.

    Moving forward to the French Open and Wimbledon, the questionable conditions of top players could stir up further chaos and opportunities for other players. Nadal is not an immortal lock for the French Open; Djokovic might not play it. Everyone else has to be licking his chops.

    It's impossible to expect that all of the top players will be healthy and fit, so it's really part of the equation. But it's still disappointing to those injured players and to the tennis scene. It's just the way it is.

    The French Open may be open for more competition this year, and for many fans this is not a bad thing. Can the likes of Federer and Stanislas Wawrinka take advantage?

Winner: Stanislas Wawrinka

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    Claude Paris

    Suppose it's Saturday, January 25, 2014. You had watched Rafael Nadal dismantle Roger Federer in the Australian Open semifinals, and now the Spaniard was preparing to take on Stanislas Wawrinka, a man to whom he had never lost a set. Then the tennis gods guaranteed that in 2014 one man would hold both the Australian Open title and the Monte Carlo Masters.

    Putting up even money, is there anyone that would have bet on Wawrinka rather than Nadal? Heck, Nadal is the only player to pull off the feat (2009) in 31 years, and he didn't win the French Open that year.

    Now Wawrinka is a legitimate threat to be the first man since Jim Courier (1992) to win both the Australian and French Opens. Nobody has ever won Melbourne, Monte Carlo and Roland Garros in the same year, dating back to the 19th century.

    It's a great boost for Wawrinka, given his recent mini-struggles at Indian Wells, Miami and Davis Cup competition.

    If you watched the Monte Carlo final versus Federer, you could see him shed his little-brother mentality versus Federer. He overcame early erratic errors with his backhand. He got over the grimace he showed when he botched an easy putaway at net to open the third game of the second set. Then, it seemed to snowball into his horrible service game. It could have cost him the match.

    You could also watch him stubbornly turn the tide of the match and finally pin Federer into the baseline in the third set. He unleashed a power barrage of backhand and forehand ropes that were eerily similar to the way Courier could bludgeon his opponents two decades ago. (Although Courier's baseball-swing double-backhand was inferior.)

    Wawrinka's resilience in beating his friend and compatriot for a big title, and a champion who had bested him 11 straight times, was nothing short of impressive. It was like the formula to beating Mike Tyson in the original Nintendo version of Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!:

    1. The first round is survival only, avoiding the knockout blows and getting in a few licks.
    2. The second round the player must change the tempo and soften up Tyson.
    3. The third round has to be a clean, dominating round. Then the player can grab the championship belt. Any slippage, and Tyson will take you down.

    Congratulations to Ironman Wawrinka. What a gutsy, if not great, performance. We toast you with one giant Golden Breadstick award.