April 16, 2015

A Few Tense Moments

This was not shaping up to be a good day for the favorites on Court Central in Monte Carlo.

With many of the top seeds getting their first taste of this season's clay court action, it's understandable that a few faltered a bit at the outset. And with some of the early action today, fans may have wondered if there was a bit of a curse on the Masters' main stage.

It started with defending champion Stan Wawrinka's third round match. The seventh seed has lost a little of the momentum he'd gained last year -- despite picking up titles in Chennai and Rotterdam, he's also notched losses to world #59 Sergiy Stakhovsky and triple-digit ranked Robin Haase this season. This week he opened with a solid win over clay specialist Juan Monaco, but had a tougher time today against also-struggling Grigor Dimitrov -- the big-hitter hasn't won more than one match at any event since the Australian Open. But the Bulgarian was back on his game today -- in less than an hour, he kept Wawrinka under fifty percent on serve, saved all six break points he faced and allowed his opponent just three games. It was the Swiss's earliest exit in Monte Carlo since 2010, but it was far from the biggest upset of the day.

That came shortly after when second seed Roger Federer took the court against recent nemesis Gael Monfils. The Frenchman, who came oh-so-close to beating the legend last year in New York, regrouped for an important win in the Davis Cup final, but has been mostly silent this year. He made a loud statement on Thursday, though -- taking advantage of a spate of errors from the four-time finalist, Monfils got the early lead in the first set and held on in the tiebreak for the second. The win keeps Roger waiting at least a year longer for one of the few Masters titles that continues to elude him and further widened the hole in the bottom half of the men's draw. Monfils will face off against Dimitrov next, and while neither are the highest ranked player still alive -- that honor goes to fourth seed Milos Raonic -- both made pretty good cases for themselves to sneak even further through the bracket.

Given what had happened on center court already today, you couldn't help but think even eight-time champion Rafael Nadal might be vulnerable. The undisputed King of Clay has had his own issues this year, losing a nail-biter to Fabio Fognini in the Rio semis and then falling to compatriot Fernando Verdasco early in Miami. And, of course, let's not forget that stunning upset at the hands of Michael Berrer in Doha. But this court is where he's arguably most at home, and many considered it his opportunity to turn a disappointing season back around. But even he was pushed today -- after surviving a tight tiebreak in his opening set against a recently resurgent John Isner, he dropped serve in the second and was forced into a decider. Ultimately Nadal was able to clinch the only break in the third set, securing the win after more than two hours of play -- but with more than a few scares, he'll have to raise his game the next time he's on court if he wants to return to the throne in Monte Carlo.

The only former champ to skate by on Thursday was Novak Djokovic. The man who dethroned Rafa in 2013 is riding quite a win streak -- he's won thirteen straight matches and crowns at the last three Masters he's played. The top seed in Monte Carlo, Nole lost just five games in his opener against Albert Ramos and today needed just fifty-six minutes to dispatch Casablanca semifinalist Andreas Haider-Maurer. Next up he faces U.S. Open champion Marin Cilic, back in action after his own injury absence -- and with a 14-0 record against the Croat, you have to like his chances to keep his momentum going. Of course, just because the gremlins that seemed to haunt today's early matches seem to have cleared out in the afternoon, doesn't mean they won't be back in the next few days. And with so many surprises already this week there's no telling how many more are still in store.

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