What to Watch for at the 2016 Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters

Joe Kennard@@JoeKennardFeatured ColumnistApril 7, 2016

What to Watch for at the 2016 Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters

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    Novak Djokovic aims for his third title in Monte Carlo.
    Novak Djokovic aims for his third title in Monte Carlo.Julian Finney/Getty Images

    Novak Djokovic dominated the early-season hard-court swing, achieving a trifecta (again) with titles at the Australian Open, Indian Wells and Miami.

    Winning the French Open and completing the career Grand Slam is now his top focus. And that journey to Roland Garros kicks off on the red dirt at the 2016 Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters.

    The defending champion at the tournament, Djokovic is the overwhelming favorite to repeat. He’s at the absolute peak of his powers, and just taking a set off him these days seems like an insurmountable task.

    Looking to steal some of that thunder will be Roger Federer, who makes his long-awaited return after a two-month sabbatical. How he holds up physically in light of that layoff is something to pay close attention to.

    Sitting on the sidelines had to be frustrating for Federer, an emotion Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray can empathize with after a whirlwind March. Both men have a lot to prove as the action shifts to clay.

    Besides how those stars perform, a few other notable plot points hang over the tournament and make it a must-watch event.

Can Rafael Nadal Regain His Swagger on Clay?

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    Nadal is still searching for a turnaround in the midst of a long slump.
    Nadal is still searching for a turnaround in the midst of a long slump.Julian Finney/Getty Images

    Once upon a time, the prospect of facing Nadal on clay sent shivers down the spine of any opponent.

    Not anymore.

    The “King of Clay” hasn’t produced stellar results on his preferred surface since winning the 2014 French Open.

    Since then, he’s dropped eight matches on the terre battue—a high number considering he only lost 13 in the previous 10 seasons combined. Worst of all, he watched Djokovic dethrone and demoralize him in Paris last year.

    In the not-too-distant past, Nadal owned every clay tournament in sight, especially Monte Carlo, where he won eight-straight titles from 2005 to 2012. Yet his last three trips there have ended without a crown.

    With a pedestrian 12-6 record so far in 2016, pressure is mounting for Nadal to prove the game hasn’t passed him by. Maybe he can rekindle some of that former glory on these slow, red courts and take a big step in the right direction.

    Either way, he faces a key litmus test at the event.

Stan Wawrinka Looks to Shake off March Slump

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    A return to the clay should be a welcome sight for Wawrinka.
    A return to the clay should be a welcome sight for Wawrinka.VALERY HACHE/Getty Images

    On clay, Stan Wawrinka is one of the most dangerous players when his game is clicking.

    The higher bounce and slower play affords him more time to crack monster forehands and backhands, keeping even the best defenders on their heels. Just ask Djokovic, who had no answer for the Wawrinka blitzkrieg in last year’s French Open final.

    The burly Swiss owns five titles in his career on the surface, including one at Monte Carlo in 2014. But you can never tell which version of the Stanimal will show up on any given day.

    Consistency is something he’s never quite mastered. That theme has come to fruition again in 2016, with Wawrinka winning events in Chennai and Dubai but falling early in Indian Wells and Miami.

    Flat during a lopsided loss to Andrey Kuznetsov in the latter event, his form isn’t where it needs to be ahead of his upcoming title defense in Paris.

    He still has time to get things together before then, but the clock is ticking.

Is Rising Star Dominic Thiem a Top Threat on Clay?

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    Thiem's clay-court prowess makes him a player to watch these next two months.
    Thiem's clay-court prowess makes him a player to watch these next two months.Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    If you're looking for a dark-horse contender at the French Open, Dominic Thiem is one name to remember.

    Although if he keeps winning at his current rate, he won't be considered under-the-radar for much longer.

    The breakout star of 2016, Thiem is zooming toward the Top 10 with the aid of his 24-6 record. And now he gets to make his mark on the surface where he truly thrives.

    In the 22-year-old Austrian's young career, he's already won four titles on the dirt, including this year's Argentina Open. En route to that victory, Thiem overcame clay wizard Nadal in a hard-fought semifinal win. A signature moment for the improving prodigy.

    With his athleticism, defensive skills and majestic one-handed backhand, Thiem's game is tailored for the slower style of play that's coming. His confidence level soaring, he has a huge opportunity to further his development in Monte Carlo.

Andy Murray Hopes to Replicate Last Year's Clay Success

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    Murray during his title run in Madrid last year.
    Murray during his title run in Madrid last year.Daniel Ochoa de Olza/Associated Press

    Prior to 2015, Murray didn't own a clay-court title, and his history on the surface was somewhat spotty. 

    That lack of success was always surprising given his formative years were spent training in Barcelona and how patient and defensively skilled he is.

    The breakthrough he desired finally came to fruition last year. Claiming back-to-back tournaments in Munich and Madrid, Murray earned the first clay titles of his career. Especially impressive was his work at the latter event. There, he took out Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikiori in succession before crushing Nadal in the championship match.

    A five-set semifinal thriller against Djokovic in Paris ended with Murray falling just short of his first French Open final. Still, that two-month run culminated in a 17-1 record and proved his viability on the dirt.

    But with that new power comes greater responsibility: defending all those points.

    After a March that saw him lose in the third round at both Indian Wells and Miami, Murray isn't exactly brimming with momentum. Therefore it's crucial for him to flip the switch and get back on track. Otherwise, he'll risk falling behind other contenders.

The Return of Roger Federer

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    Over two months have passed since Federer last played. How will he fare?
    Over two months have passed since Federer last played. How will he fare?Julian Finney/Getty Images

    When Federer originally announced his 2016 schedule, there was a notable absence of clay-court events prior to the French Open.

    Those plans have changed due to injury and illness.

    Two months after a loss in the Australian Open semifinals to Djokovic, Federer has yet to play a match. He suffered a torn meniscus before departing Melbourne, undergoing surgery that kept him out through Indian Wells.

    Slated to return in Miami, Federer withdrew before his opening match against Juan Martin del Potro because of a virus. The wait continued.

    Finally fit and ready to compete again, the Swiss is out to find his rhythm before traveling to Roland Garros. Monte Carlo is a good place to start for Federer, who’s a four-time finalist at the event.

    A strong result would not only give him confidence about his game and health—it would propel him closer to regaining the No. 2 ranking.

Who Will Challenge Novak Djokovic?

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    Djokovic celebrates after winning the 2015 Monte Carlo title.
    Djokovic celebrates after winning the 2015 Monte Carlo title.Julian Finney/Getty Images

    What more can we say about Djokovic at this point?

    His current reign of terror should be considered one of the most dominant stretches in the history of sports—not just tennis.

    Capturing nearly every title in sight, Djokovic is an absurd 28-1 to begin 2016. Even that one blemish comes with an asterisk as it occurred because an eye infection forced him to retire mid-match in Dubai.

    During his current 14-match win streak, the Serbian has won the last 11 without dropping a set. Let that sink in. Making him break a sweat is daunting enough for his beleaguered colleagues.

    After winning his sixth Australian Open and achieving the Indian Wells-Miami sweep for the fourth time, Djokovic is ready to hit the clay and begin his quest for a maiden title at the French Open.

    With Paris on the horizon, he will begin those preparations in his residence of Monte Carlo.

    A two-time champion (2013 and 2015) there, the 28-year-old is the clear-cut favorite to defend his title. The question is: Can anyone step up and actually challenge him?

    If not, Djokovic will have to make even more room in his trophy case.

    All statistics are courtesy of ATPWorldTour.com unless otherwise noted.