Rafa’s records, Novak’s challenges among key Monte Carlo questions

Published by Vivienne Christie

Will Rafael Nadal claim a record 11th title in Monte Carlo? Getty Images
Marking the first big event of the European clay court season, the Monte Carlo Masters also arrives with some big questions.

The narrative is clearly changing as the ATP Tour settles into one of its most picturesque settings in Monte Carlo. Rafael Nadal, a 10-time titlist, has only recently returned from injury, while Roger Federer, Juan Martin del Potro and Andy Murray are among the big names missing. With Novak Djokovic also a long way removed from the form that took him to two titles, there are some key questions that add suspense to the story.

How much more history for Rafael Nadal?

It’s the obvious question for a man who already has 10 unparalleled titles at Monte Carlo (as well as Barcelona and Roland Garros) and has lost just one match – to Dominic Thiem in Rome – on clay since withdrawing from the 2016 French Open with a wrist problem. But history is not the only question, with Nadal only just returned from the leg injury that forced his withdrawal from the AO2018 quarterfinals. The signs were promising as Rafa defeated Philipp Kohlscreiber and Alexander Zverev to add to his record 23 straight Davis Cup wins – but can his body hold out in match after match on the most gruelling surface? And if that’s not pressure enough, consider that Nadal also requires a victory to maintain his world No.1 ranking. 

Can Novak Djokovic commence the rebuild?

While nobody loves a hard court more than Djokovic, nobody will relish the fresh start of a new surface more this season. He pointedly noted at Miami that his injured elbow was at last feeling better but confidence appeared completely lacking when he lost first-up to Benoit Paire. Coaches Andre Agassi and Radek Stepanek having left the team, Djokovic reunited (whether permanently or not) with long-time advisor Marian Vajda. Current form suggests he’s unlikely to repeat his Monte Carlo victories of 2013 and 2015, but Novak can at least look to the event – where he’s also a two-time finalist – to start rebuilding.

RELATED: Djokovic keeps a positive mindset.

Will Marin Cilic step up on clay?

Consecutive quarterfinals in Monte Carlo don’t quite tell the full story of Cilic’s claycourt potential. In 2017, his lone title came on clay in Istanbul and he reached a first quarterfinal at Roland Garros. Also somewhat lost in the Cilic story is that he defeated Andy Murray en route to winning the 2005 French Open boys’ title. While he’s been lacking some consistency since reaching a third Grand Slam final at the Australian Open, nobody would be surprised if the Croatian could notch another career first in Monte Carlo.

What next for Alexander Zverev?

Asked at the Hopman Cup what surprised him the most about his breakthrough 2017, Zverev was still stunned that his first ATP Masters 1000 title occurred on clay (in Rome) with victory over Djokovic in the final. That important victory followed by another Masters title (defeating Federer to win Montreal) and a runner-up performance in Miami, rumours now swirl of a possible super-coach pairing with Ivan Lendl. Turning 21 on Friday, Zverev could look to a strong showing in Monte Carlo as the best way to celebrate a big birthday.

Is this Dominic Thiem’s time?

Ask anyone to name the best clay courter aside from Nadal and they’ll invariably name Thiem. He’s won six of his eight career titles on the red dirt and stunned Djokovic as he progressed to a second consecutive Roland Garros semifinal in 2017. But is Monte Carlo a legitimate target? Perhaps not. Thiem’s unremarkable third-round showings of the past two seasons (losing to David Goffin in 2017) are his best performances in four appearances. This year Thiem has the added challenges of returning from an ankle injury, sustained at Indian Wells, that prompted a rare six-week absence and a draw that’s placed him in Nadal’s quarter.

Who’ll be the surprise package?

With big names absent and others only recently returned, the first event on European clay can present some thrilling surprise packages. There are several candidates in Monte Carlo: Lucas Pouille, world No.11, made the 2017 semifinals, Borna Coric has thundered into the top 30 with a 14-6 record this season and Kyle Edmund lists clay as his favourite surface. Andrey Rublev, the 2014 Roland Garros boys’ champion, might have been another potential surprise package if not for a draw that sees him likely to face Thiem in the second round, with Nadal also looming.

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