April 12, 2011

Where Things Get Serious

While last week served as a nice amuse bouche for the clay court season, the men are really hunkering down for the spring this week in Monte Carlo, the first Masters 1000 event on the surface. Most of the big guns are out to make a statement, but with year-to-date #1 Novak Djokovic and two-time French Open finalist Robin Soderling both withdrawing due to injury, the pressure is on to see who fires the first shot.

Six-time defending champion Rafael Nadal will be looking to claim his first title of the year and is the on-paper and sentimental favorite here again. I'm not worried that he hasn't yet broken through in 2011 -- the Monte Carlo trophy kicked off his most prolific years in '10 and '08, so he could very well be saving his best stuff. But all good things have to end eventually, and if there are any chinks in the armor, we might see a new champion break through.

World #3 Roger Federer will certainly try to take his crack at that -- the Grand Slam record holder has somewhat surprisingly never won a title here, coming in second to Nadal three years in a row. It's hard to say a year which already includes a title in Doha and no event exits earlier than a semi is unsuccessful, but for a champion like Fed, it's not the season he's used to. We know he can play on clay, and his opening round drubbing of Philipp Kohlschreiber on Tuesday proves he's still hungry.

But if any of the super-elite needs to rethink his strategy, it has to be Andy Murray who, as has been repeatedly noted, hasn't won a match since his devastating Australian Open championship rout. Clay is by far his worst surface -- he's barely batting 0.500 on the dirt -- and with early round match-ups against specialists like Radek Stepanek and either Albert Montanes or Gilles Simon in the following round, he might not be able to improve his record much in Monaco.

Rounding out the top four seeds in Monte Carlo is journeyman David Ferrer, a seasoned clay-court player who's never really broken through on the big stage. But he made the semis here last year and went one better in Rome, so he seems to be gaining traction. Already this year he's won two titles, more than anyone else seeded above him, and had the benefit of momentum on his side. If he can get through early challenges from countryman Feliciano Lopez and young gun Milos Raonic, who's already made the third round, he could be a force to reckon with this week.

Sure there's plenty of opportunity for new talent to make their own run in Monte Carlo, but with all else equal you gotta put your money on the favorites. Some, of course, have better chances than others, but with just a few weeks left before we hit the red clay of Roland Garros, now's as good a time as any to get out of the starting blocks.

No comments: