The clay court season starts getting into full swing this coming week, with the first Masters 1000 event on the surface: the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters.
With Roger Federer, by far the dominant player of the opening stages of 2017, not in action, with 2016 runner-up Gael Monfils, Nick Kyrgios, and Milos Raonic also out, there are some opportunities to be created for some players, though the field is still extremely strong.
Rafael Nadal, three times a loser in finals this year (twice to Federer), will be aiming for not only his first title of the season but a staggering 10th title in Monte Carlo, after winning the title last year. Meanwhile, world number one Andy Murray and two-time champion Novak Djokovic will be looking for some form after slow starts to the season; 2014 champion Stan Wawrinka is also in action.
Projected Q/F: (1st) Andy Murray vs (5th) Marin Cilic
There are some doubts for the world number one coming into Monte-Carlo, having only decided to play a few days ago due to an elbow injury, though the Brit believes he is fit, and should see off either Gilles Muller or Tommy Robredo in his opening match. Things may not be too easy after that, however, with potential meetings against Philipp Kohlschreiber, who nearly beat Murray in Dubai, or 15th seed Albert Ramos-Vinolas in the third round; Murray should win either match, but may be vulnerable.
On his day, Cilic could potentially challenge Murray, though on clay, and considering his poor start to the season, it could be extremely difficult for. The Croatian has an extremely testing opener, against either Borna Coric or Jeremy Chardy (in what is one of the most interesting first round clashes). Talented, yet erratic, Frenchman Benoit Paire is potentially a danger (he starts against Tommy Haas, which could be difficult). Ninth seed Tomas Berdych, who was a finalist here in 2015 and starts against a qualifier, has been in slightly better form of late, but can struggle on this surface.
Prediction: Murray def Berdych
Projected Q/F: (3rd) Stan Wawrinka vs (7th) Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
The two highest seeds in this quarter have seemingly contrasting opening matches, with Wawrinka facing either Mischa Zverev or Jiri Vesely, who so famously knocked out Djokovic last year, whilst Tsonga will start against a qualifier; with neither in great form, however, this might be a fairly open section.
This is not a particularly easy section of the draw, with several clay court specialists present. Joao Sousa is particularly challenging, though (assuming he beats Florian Mayer) a second round clash against either Viktor Troicki or 16th seed Pablo Cuevas, for the chance to potentially face the third seed, is extremely difficult. Veterans Marcel Granollers and Paolo Lorenzi face off in the opening round and both can be dangerous on the surface, though the potential of a second round clash against 11th seed Lucas Pouille could be a step too far; Pouille and Tsonga are set to face in the third round, which could be a key match in terms of this section.
Prediction: Tsonga def Sousa
Projected Q/F: (8th) Grigor Dimitrov vs (4th) Rafael Nadal
There is a lot of anticipation surrounding Nadal, as he returns to his strongest surface after a strong start to the season; it is hard to see either Kyle Edmund or Dan Evans challenging him in his opening match, though it doesn’t seem that the Spaniard will find life easy. He is set to face 14th seed Alexander Zverev, who has tested him in the past, in the third round, though could easily face tricky clay court specialists such as Andreas Seppi or Feliciano Lopez at this stage.
A potential quarterfinal against Dimitrov would not be an easy match for the Spaniard, though the eighth seed has had a slight dip in form of late, and may be vulnerable on what is probably his weakest surface. An opening match against a qualifier or wildcard Casper Ruud should be a passable test for the Brisbane champion, though with clay court specialists such as Diego Schwartzman, who opens against Bernard Tomic, and 12th seed Roberto Bautista Agut, who is putting another consistent season together, could see him fail to make the last eight.
Prediction: Nadal def Bautista Agut
Projected Q/F: (6th) Dominic Thiem vs (2nd) Novak Djokovic
It hasn’t been the strongest start to the season for Djokovic, who was also out of form towards the end of last season, and it may not be too encouraging that he lost in his opening match in Monte-Carlo last year. Potential third round clashes against 13th seed Pablo Carreno Busta or Fabio Fognini (who face off in arguably the most interesting first round clash), or perhaps even young Russian Karen Khachanov, are potentially dangerous; Djokovic, however, will enter a match against either of those three as favorite, and why they could well be difficult, he should safely see off Gilles Simon or Malek Jaziri to begin with.
Seeded sixth, Thiem hasn’t quite hit the heights of 2016 so far, though is a strong clay court player and could well challenge Djokovic if they meet in the last eight. However, Thiem may not have an easy opener against either Robin Haase or Federico Delbonis; though he should beat either of them, a third round clash against Nicolas Almagro, or more likely 10th seed David Goffin, another strong clay courter having one of the best seasons of his career, could well challenge the Austrian, or the world number two for that matter.
Prediction: Goffin def Djokovic
Murray def Tsonga
Nadal def Goffin
Nadal def Murray