The men’s clay court season kicks off this week in Monte Carlo. Usually, this is the time of year where Rafael Nadal lines up opponents and beats them down one by one on his way to winning another French Open. But this season, Nadal has his share of issues they may put another repeat in jeopardy, starting with his knees and Novak Djokovic.
Nadal will get a chance to overcome both issues in Monte Carlo. He and Djokovic are the top two seeds in the draw, along with Andy Murray, Joe Wilfred Tsonga, David Ferrer, and Tomas Berdych, who are seeded third through sixth. Roger Federer hasn’t played Monte Carlo since he got married a few years ago. And without him, the draw pretty much favors another Nadal vs. Djokovic final.
If his knees hold up, Nadal won’t run into anyone who can beat him until he reaches that final. Nicolas Almagro is a potential quarterfinal opponent, and in the semis, he could face either Gilles Simon, big serving Milos Raonic, or Tsonga. None of them should be a problem. Nadal owns Almagro; Raonic is not a good mover, and two weeks ago, in Miami, he beat Tsonga despite playing through a bout of tendinitis.
Djokovic will have a tougher time reaching the final, but he should get there, too. The question will be what kind of shape he’ll be in when he does. Ferrer is his most likely opponent in the quarters, and after that, he should see Murray or Berdych in the semis. If he has to go through Ferrer and Murray in back to back days, Djokovic could be exhausted by the time he plays Nadal. And his newfound fitness may be the problem.
Ever since Djokovic put his breathing problems behind him, he’s relied on a more passive style of tennis. And while that’s got him to number one in the world, it’s also kept him on the court way too long for his run to be sustainable.
This season, 90 mph forehands that rarely penetrate beyond the service line, along with backhands that are more about wearing an opponent down than generating outright winners are his weapons of choice these days. As a result, fans get drama packed six-hour finals like the one he and Nadal played in Australia, but not much in the way of aggressive tennis. The same type of scenario played out in the Miami final against Murray, where it took Djokovic and Murray over an hour to play out a first set that ended 6-1 in favor of Djokovic.
Don’t look for much to change in Monte Carlo. The clay rewards grinders. The question will be what gets grinded first, Nadal’s knees or Djokovic’s fitness. Look for them to settle that in the finals where Djokovic prevails 7-5, 6-4, in well over three hours.