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The Return of the Rafa? ATP Monte Carlo Preview

Doubtless energized by a return to the clay, Nadal pursues a record-breaking sixth consecutive Monte Carlo title and his first title in nearly a year. The draw includes only five of the ATP top ten and lacks not only Federer but past Rafa-killers Del Potro, Davydenko, and Soderling. In the depleted field, can anyone derail Nadal’s return to the winner’s circle? Quarter-by-quarter preview straight ahead…

First quarter: Probably the strongest section of the draw, it features not only top-seeded Djokovic but more than one dangerous dark horse who enjoys this time of year. Novak’s second match probably pits him against newly minted Casablanca champion Wawrinka, who extended the Serb to three sets here last year after downing Federer. The winner of that delicious encounter will be favored to progress past either Robredo or Youzhny, but the Spaniard plays better than his ranking on clay while the Russian has soared to uncharacteristic heights so far in 2010. Don’t completely forget about Houston semifinalist Horacio Zeballos or perennial sleeper David Nalbandian, either. From the outset, the matches in this quarter should provide tense, compelling drama, an arena in which Djokovic typically excels.

Semifinalist: Djokovic

Second quarter: As a results of the absences catalogued above, Cilic finds himself in possession of his own quarter…but probably not for long. He looked weary and erratic in the two previous Masters 1000 events, and his movement has looked awkward at best on the clay; we won’t be surprised if a sturdy performance from Andreev topples the Croat in the second round. In fact, the Russian might plow all the way to the quarters in this relatively soft section, where Verdasco likely would await. We’ll never discount Berdych again after his (potential) breakthrough in Miami, but we suspect that a third-round encounter with the Spaniard would reverse their quarterfinal clash two weeks ago. A long time ago, Gasquet burst into the spotlight here by ambushing Federer. Is he ready to surprise some major names? Although Richard has (allegedly) committed additional effort to preparing for the clay, we’re not ready to believe in him again.

Semifinalist: Verdasco

Third quarter: Welcome to the land of opportunity! The two names that bookend this section, Ljubicic and Murray, play much lower than the rankings on the red stuff. Although the Scot did reach the semis here last year, a dogged performance by an underdog probably would extend his slide (and drop him to #5 in the rankings). On second thought, however, very few players in this section could perform that role; Fognini, Melzer, or Mathieu, anyone? We didn’t think so. Scoring a major upset of Djokovic at last year’s French Open, Kohlschreiber could prove a intriguing test in Murray’s opening match. But few players are as dogged–and as lethal on clay–as the Spaniard who pounded Wawrinka into crushed brick at Davis Cup a month ago.

Semifinalist: Ferrer

Fourth quarter: The bull paws the ground here, but will the earth tremble as it has done since 2005? Playing without high expectations during Indian Wells and Miami, Nadal will feel the “privilege” of pressure squarely on his shoulders this week. A loss before the final (arguably, a loss to any player other than Djokovic) would telegraph continued fallibility to his rivals and almost-rivals. Fortunately for him, few truly formidable potholes lurk in his quarter, so he’ll have a chance to settle any nerves against the likes of Argentines Schwank and Monaco. The second-highest seed in the section, Tsonga probably won’t survive until the quarterfinals, since his acrobatic game lacks the patience and consistency required to succeed on clay. Unless the Frenchman delivers an outstanding serving performance, Rafa probably will be charging after Almagro or Ferrero in the quarterfinals. If he’s fully healthy, a loss to either of them on this surface would be virtually inconceivable.

Semifinalist: Nadal

Semifinals: Verdasco hasn’t defeated Djokovic in five meetings since 2006 Hamburg (before Novak was Novak), including a three-set quarterfinal here last year, so we have to stick with the Serb. Best known for his ball-retrieving talents, Ferrer lacks the ferocious ball-striking and relentless aggression (see D for Davydenko and S for Soderling) of the players who typically trouble Nadal.

Djokovic d. Verdasco, Nadal d. Ferrer

Final: Djokovic and Nadal played a thrilling championship match here a year ago, the first of three meetings between them during the clay season. After two strenuous sets, Novak faded in the final set, and his stamina hasn’t improved since then, while his form has distinctly declined. Moreover, it’s likely that he would be more weary than Rafa at that stage because his path is perceptibly more demanding.

Nadal d. Djokovic

***

Of course, we’ll preview the actual semifinal and final matchups in much more extensive detail when they take form, but hopefully we did some of our work in advance. In the meantime, we’ll be back shortly with a similar preview of the WTA Charleston event. Enjoy the Mediterranean tennis! :)

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