April 15, 2021

All Bets Are Off

Monte Carlo, obviously, is a gambling town, and like all gambling towns, there are a couple things we should know: 1) there are no sure bets, and 2) the house always wins. So we shouldn't be surprised by what we've seen so far at the first clay court Masters event of the season, but that doesn't make the results any less noteworthy.

I'll start with the big upset of the day, where Novak Djokovic, undefeated so far this year, took the court against the talented but unseeded workhorse Daniel Evans. While Nole's win streak was smaller than it's been at this point in previous seasons -- he skipped out on Miami because of COVID restrictions and we haven't seen him since he won that ninth Australian Open title -- he was still clearly the favorite here. He's, after all, got more weeks than anyone else atop the rankings, and with just one loss to a sub-thirty player over the last two years, few opponents have a shot at making any headway. His one-sided win over phenom Jannik Sinner in his opener further proved his dominance.

The odds didn't seem to bother Evans, though -- and they were tough odds. The thirty-year-old, who picked up the first title of his career at the Murray River Open to start the season, has been a little quiet lately -- he lost five of his six matches since then, including his opener at the Australian Open, and came to the Rolex Masters a shade off his career high ranking at #33 in the world. But he pulled of a nice win over Miami champ Hubert Hurkacz in the second round to set up a showdown with the top seed, and he was unintimidated by his opponent. He broke Nole's usually strong serve five times and kept him to under sixty percent on his first attempts. It was a long two-setter, no doubt -- over two hours at the end -- but one where the underdog didn't flinch and came away with the fourth top ten win of his career, his first ever over a world #1.

The surprises, though, didn't only come as upsets. David Goffin, who frankly stunned me with a title in Montpellier in February, went back to form right after that, winning just two matches at four events, most recently losing to world #104 James Duckworth in his Miami opener. And while his own ranking has been somewhat shielded by COVID-related rules, he hadn't beaten a top ten player in over a year. But he seems to have found his footing again this week -- after a tighted first round against former U.S. Open champ Marin Cilic, he took out former French Open semifinalist and earlier today scored an important win over fifth seed Alexander Zverev in straights sets. With a quarterfinal match now against Evans instead of Djokovic, we'll get to see if he can put his higher on-paper ranking to work.

And Goffin's not the only recently-struggling star to right his course in Monte Carlo. Fabio Fognini, who I was stunned to learn is technically the defending champion here, having beaten Zverev and Rafael Nadal on his way to the 2019 title, the last time the event was played, has been similarly spotty over the last twelve months, winning just one match in 2020 after the Australian Open, pulling off a couple nice wins at this year's ATP Cup, and then losing his last three matches to players ranked outside the top sixty. But he's turning things around this week -- he may not have played another seed yet, but he's gotten three straight-set wins so far, today over a tough Filip Krajinovic in under ninety minutes. He'll face a bigger test next against Casper Ruud, who's already beaten Diego Schwartzman and Marbella champ Pablo Carreño Busta, but perhaps there's something about this dirt that can really help Fognini shine.

Of course, as I mentioned, there are two rules of every gambling mecca, and if anyone can call the Monte Carlo Masters home, it's Rafael Nadal. He has, after all, won a record eleven titles here, eight of them in a row, and he's only been more prolific at one other event. Like with Djokovic, we haven't seen much of Rafa this year -- he hadn't played since losing in the Aussie quarters due to a back injury and his sparse schedule has forced him to cede his spot at #2 in the rankings.

He could get it back, though, if he makes the final this weekend, and so far, he's looking on point to do just that. He's lost just five games in his last two matches, needing less than an hour to dispatch one-time world #3 Grigor Dimitrov earlier today. To make the semis, he'll have to get past red-hot Andrey Rublev, and while I'm a little nervous about that, Nadal has won both of their previous meetings and Rublev has proven himself not-so-indestructable of late. Still, it could be a close one, and no matter how stacked the odds are, there's always the chance the game gets turned on its head.

But maybe, just maybe, we're in for a real big jackpot.

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