Monte Carlo TD: Not their fault

No official word yet on the extent of Aussie Thanasi Kokkinakis’s knee injury, after he tripped over an advertising box on court in Monte Carlo last week.

But tournament director Zeljko Franulovic said while they feel worse than anyone about it, it’s not their fault.

“There’s a distance of more than six meters from the baseline to the back of the court, which is widely within the rules of the ATP,” Franulovic said in a post-tournament press conference. “The cushions are only foam, they’re not rigid.

“We can’t have 20 meters on each side of the court.”

Raonic injury ends rough Monte Carlo for Canada

Milos Raonic is not, generally, a player who cuts an overly sympathetic figure.

His big-serving game style and stoic demeanor bring him more respect than genuine emotional attachment, in most quarters.

But as the injuries keep coming, as the 27-year-old Canadian starts to gain a little momentum only to be stopped – once again – by a physical issue, he may well get more tennis fans starting to root for him.

Because it’s getting old.

And the prime years of his career are slipping by quickly.

Raonic was forced to withdraw before his third-round match against No. 2 seed Marin Cilic Friday in Monte Carlo because of a right knee injury.

The injury first became evident during his second-round victory over Marco Cecchinato of Italy, after he already pulled out of the doubles with what was listed as a right eye injury.

After Canadian wild card Félix Auger-Aliassime was eliminated in his first-round match by German veteran Mischa Zverev, Denis Shapovalov also went out in the first round to fellow 19-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas.

And now, Raonic.

Raonic went out for a hit Thursday morning, to see if the knee had responded well enough over night to give it a go. It hadn’t.

He’ll still move up one spot in the rankings to No. 21 – just five points out of a return to the top 20 – after missing the tournament a year ago and having no points to defend.

But knees are not quick-fix issues.

Here’s a recap of Raonic’s health struggles over the last three years.

2015: foot surgery, back injury

Raonic started the 2015 season by reaching the Brisbane final, the Australian Open quarterfinals.

He posted his first career win over Rafael Nadal on his way to the Indian Wells semis.

A pinched nerve in his foot – a longstanding, ongoing issue – forced Raonic to retire in Monte Carlo in his quarterfinal against Tomas Berdych. He tried to manage it and play Madrid. But surgery was the only option. And he couldn’t get back in time for the French Open.

Still in with a shot at one of the final spots at the ATP Tour finals, Raonic ended his season after Shanghai with a back issue that had been bothering him since the summer.

2016: Adductor kills momentum

Raonic began 2016 with some crowd-pleasing (yes, you read correctly) tennis as he defeated Roger Federer to win Brisbane.

He seemed on his way to the Australian Open final – until an adductor injury put the kibosh on his semifinal clash with Andy Murray.

The Canadian didn’t return until Indian Wells. But he picked up right where he left off with a final there, and a quarterfinal loss in Miami to Nick Kyrgios.

The fourth-round loss to Albert Ramos-Viñolas in Paris was a bit of a shocker. But overall, his clay-court campaign was a successful one.

And on the grass, he took it up a notch with a final at Queen’s Club and a final at Wimbledon – both losses to Andy Murray.

After opting to skip the Olympics, Raonic cramped in a second-round loss to Ryan Harrison at the US Open. The aftereffects of that caused him to miss a crucial Davis Cup tie a few weeks later.

Later in the year, he after getting through a quarterfinal with an ankle sprain, he pulled out before his semifinal in Beijing with what he called a “tear on the outside of the ankle.”

Raonic had to pull out of Beijing in 2016 with an injury, before his semifinal match.

He recovered and continued to play. But he pulled out before his semifinal at the Paris Masters with a leg injury.

Having already qualified for – and finally being able to play in – his first ATP Tour Finals, he wasn’t going to take any chances. So in the grand scheme of the Milos Raonic Medical File, these were tiny bumps.

Raonic reached the semis in London, lost 9-7 in a third-set tiebreak to Murray, and finished the season ranked a career-high No. 3.

Despite all the physical wobbles, it was the best season of his career.

2017: Adductor, wrist, calf, knee

The early part of Raonic’s season went well – until a high hamstring tear in February. He withdrew from the Delray final, missed Indian Wells, won a match then pulled out in Miami – and wasn’t seen again until May.

He returned and immediately began playing good tennis through the clay-court season. Every single player who defeated him was a top-quality opponent.

His Wimbledon? Okay – a quarterfinal loss to Roger Federer on the heels of a five-set win over Alexander Zverev in the previous round.

But his left wrist already was an issue. 

Raonic played the 500-level event in Washington, D.C. out of necessity, because of the parameters of the ranking system. But he lost his first match at his home-country event in Canada, to Adrian Mannarino. And that was it for the summer hard-court season. The Canadian had a procedure on that left wrist, and was out until October.

When he did return in Tokyo, he won his first-round match but tore his calf in the process. After one game, he retired in his second-round match.

That was it for the competitive season. But that wasn’t the end of the injuries.

As Raonic got back to training, he injured his right knee, and that cost him six weeks.

2018: A slow start – and the knee again

Raonic began 2018 short on both fitness and tennis. He took early losses to Alex de Minaur, Lukas Lacko and Steve Johnson to start the season.

He looked slow, and his serve wasn’t clicking. Raonic said that the nature of the knee injury meant that, unlike so many of his previous issues, he couldn’t at least serve while he was idle, or rehabbing.

But then, sparked by a confrontation with 10-years-younger countryman Félix Auger-Aliassime in his first match at Indian Wells, he came alive. He reached the semifinals there and the quarterfinals in Miami, losing to the on-fire Juan Martin del Potro on both occasions. 

With each week, he seemed to gain in both fitness and effectiveness.

And now, it’s the knee again – the same knee that cost him most of his off-season.

Leg jam, knee twist

Monte Carlo
(TennisTV.com)

The knee injury occurred in the middle of the first set of his match against Cecchinato.

The leg got stuck, the knee got twisted, and Raonic told ATP Tour physio Stéphane Vivier there was a “throbbing pain” in two areas.

When discussing a possible tape job, Raonic pointed out that the loss of rotation could have ancillary consequences, mentioning his previous hip issues. He took a tablet, but there wasn’t much to be done. 

He got through the match, a fact Cecchinato no doubt continues to lament. But he couldn’t go, 24 hours later, against Cilic.

The long-term injuries to so many of the top players in the game have been well-documented. But they’re all older than he is, with many more miles on the tennis odometer. This string of physical woes may be even more frustrating  on some levels.

Every year, it seems, Raonic has to battle and start all over again a few times.

And with the meat of the competitive season coming up over the next few months, it’s no time to be sidelined.

(Monte Carlo screenshots from TennisTV.com)

 

Win for Thiem, but positives for Djokovic

For Dominic Thiem, it was a superb victory to kickstart his all-important clay-court campaign.

For Novak Djokovic, it was – even in defeat – a building block in his renaissance.

Thiem prevailed 6-7 (2), 6-2, 6-3 in a third-round match in Monte Carlo Thursday that ran a few seconds short of 2 1/2 hours. It provided moments of great (and some no-so-great) tennis, and plenty of competitive tension and emotion.

Thiem was off for five weeks tending to a bone bruise in his foot. For a player often accused of playing far too much tennis as it is, it was an unusual layoff.

The break may serve him well in the late stages of the season. But it created some ring rust for this clay-court opener.

It took the 24-year-old two hours, 40 minutes to squeak past Russia’s Andrey Rublev in his first match. But he played a far, far better match against Djokovic, who won their first career five meetings before losing their most recent clash, a year ago at the French Open. 

Thiem

The reward for getting through this one is a date with No. 1 seed Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals Friday.

Thiem’s tactics effective

Thiem’s serving patterns Thursday were designed to pull Djokovic out wide, on both sides of the court. Along with the changes in spin and velocity, they proved effective. The Austrian won 75 per cent of points of his first serves. He won 52 per cent of them on his second delivery. And he faced only three break points.

Again, he drew Djokovic into the backhand cross-court pattern that often proved a winning formula for Borna Coric in the previous round. The difference was that Coric is not as good a player, and he couldn’t do it often enough – or at the crucial moments late in the sets – to have a better outcome.

It’s a pattern that isn’t working as well for Djokovic these days because he isn’t confident enough in his ball striking to include the element that so often turns those exchanges in his favour. The ability to change the direction of the ball almost on command and fire his backhand down the line, thus gaining the advantage in the rally at any moment – is a cornerstone of his ground game.

In this one, while the two were close to even in the short rallies (under five shots), Thiem was well ahead between 5-9 shots (37-31) and longer than nine shots (17-10).

Thiem
Djokovic had some vintage moments over the last two days (and nearly five on-court hours) in Monte Carlo. Next step is to have even more of them – and clean up the backhand side. (TennisTV.com)

The Serb’s backhand is producing an alarmingly high number of errors at the moment (the majority of them going into the net on Thrusday). It was flagrant during his matches at Indian Wells and Miami, and it was just as apparent on Thursday. Of his 40 unforced errors (to only 20 winners), 26 came on the backhand side.

And when he did go down the line, he did so with such safety that, on the slower surface, Thiem was generally able to track it down.

Building blocks in Monte Carlo

Djokovic’s first match was an ideal matchup for him, against a countryman who was unlikely to mount enough resistance either mentally or with his game. He couldn’t have asked for better.

The match against Coric was a sterner test against a stronger opponent. It could have turned differently, had the 21-year-old Croat been able to push through on some of his opportunities. But that’s only one side of the net. On his side, Djokovic was faced with multiple challenges. And he resisted in a way he hadn’t during the American hard-court swing.

He needed more than 27 minutes, from his first match point through to his 10th and final match point, to close it out against Coric. Had the match gone to a third set – and it well could have – there’s no telling what the outcome might have been.

But it didn’t. And that experienced served him well, at times, on Friday.

And the fact that Djokovic was able to come back from 2-5, and three set points, to eke out the first set in a tiebreak was a huge positive.

Against Thiem, he defended the corners of the court a whole lot more effectively than he had the previous day. The uptick in his anticipation and side-to-side movement was noticeable.

“A lot of positives in this tournament. Three matches played. The last two matches have been almost two and a half hours, today three sets obviously against one of the best players in the world, especially on clay,” Djokovic told the media in Monte Carlo afterwards.

“I’ve played some great tennis… Still some ups and downs. But every match here in Monte-Carlo had some periods of brilliance and the tennis that I really enjoyed, I wanted to play. That obviously gives me a lot of positive energy for what’s coming up.”

 

Soft warning a turning point

Djokovic was visibly annoyed, at 3-2 in the third set, when chair umpire Carlos Bernardes gave him a soft warning, telling him to watch the time between points.

ThiemIt was hardly an unusual occurrence in a Djokovic match.

And it came as the two players were on serve in the third set. It didn’t come just before Djokovic was about to serve. And Bernardes didn’t even issue a warning or a code violation.

Djokovic responded by taking an average of 16 seconds between points in his next game – down a full nine seconds from his 25-second average through the match to that point. And he was broken. 

In his next service game, at 3-5 and working to stay in the match, Djokovic was still rushing. On one point, at 15-30, he fired his first serve as Bernardes was still addressing the crowd, asking them to quiet down.

Djokovic missed by several feet. He only salvaged that point with an off-the-charts difficult backhand volley on a rare (and curiously-timed) serve-and-volley on his second serve. It was not lucid thinking.

A few points later, it was over.

Djokovic declined to shake Bernardes’s hand even though, in truth,  he had only himself to blame for failing to handle the fairly benign situation with his typical, experienced calm.

Back-to-back tough ones

But those are things that happen when your confidence is down.

There were long stretches of the match when Djokovic played with the fire and emotion that he needs to play his best.

ThiemBut in those last three games, after that initial break of serve, the emotional energy seemed to drain out of him even though the match was by no means over. 

The combination of that, and the back-to-back long, physical matches after a long spell without much match play, may have done him in a little.

But getting those matches – and some victories – will only serve him well going forward.

More clay next week

After the match, Djokovic told the media in Monte Carlo that he plans to add a tournament next week. He also said that he would continue to work with longtime coach Marian Vadja through the clay-court season.

Vadja left as part of a purge of the entirety of Team Djokovic before last year’s French Open. But he returned to help Djokovic through his clay-court preparation period in Spain.

“I’m lacking matches. That’s why we all agreed that it’s quite important for me to play, try to use every opportunity possible,” Djokovic said. “We’ll continue working hard in this process, trying to build up… I look forward to building more confidence on the court, to get my game on a desired level.” 

The options are the 500-level event in Barcelona and a smaller, 250-level event in Budapest.

No doubt either would happily offer a wild card.

But his best play would be the smaller event.

(UPDATE: Djokovic chose Barcelona)

Budapest the better bet

Five of the eight Monte Carlo quarterfinalists – including Nadal and Thiem – are in the Barcelona draw. Lucas Pouille (at No. 11) is the only top-25 player in the Budapest draw barring last-minute surprises.

Budapest offers a first-round bye in a 28-player draw, compared to a first-round bye in a 56-player draw, with an extra round. That means an extra day or two of practice. It could also mean a better opportunity to continue to build on the groundwork laid in Monte Carlo – perhaps even the opportunity to hold up a trophy for the first time since Eastbourne last summer. 

(Not to mention, it would be a welcome boost for a 250-level tournament, something the smaller events desperately need in the top-heavy world of men’s tennis).

With two more Masters 1000 tournaments in Madrid and Rome before the French Open, there remain plenty of opportunities to face the top guns. The more matches under the belt when that happens, the better.

Good first step for Novak Djokovic

The Novak Djokovic who stepped on Centre Court in Monte Carlo Monday was a much-improved edition, compared to the lost-looking fellow who went out in the first round in Indian Wells and Miami.

And that has to be encouraging, as the two-time Monte Carlo champion rolled over Dusan Lajovic 6-0, 6-1 in just 56 minutes.

If he was pleased about finally playing without elbow pain in Miami, despite the early exit, he seemed even more positive about his health as he spoke to the media after his victory.

“I thought it was good considering the amount of matches I’ve played in the past almost 12 months. With injury and everything that was happening the past couple months, the post-surgery period, me trying to come back to Indian Wells and Miami, and obviously playing well below the desired level, it wasn’t that easy for me to cope with all of that. At the same time it made me I think even more inspired to come back and try to play the way I played today,” Djokovic said

“Under the circumstances and considering I haven’t played too many official matches, I thought I played well. I thought I started the tournament well. It’s first match on clay,” Djokovic said. “All in all, it was a great start of the tournament.”

Draw gods kind

Of all the qualifiers Djokovic could have drawn for his clay-court debut, it fell to his friend and fellow Serb, Lajovic, to try to stop him.

That was a stroke of good fortune, even if the rest of Djokovic’s draw poses a significantly heightened challenge.

There’s a mystique that a player like Djokovic has among his countrymen. It’s the same for Rafael Nadal against fellow Spaniards, and for Roger Federer against his friend Stan Wawrinka – even after Wawrinka became a Grand Slam champion himself.

Djokovic was all in for a hug at the net after stomping fellow Serb Dusan Lajovic Monday in Monte Carlo. (TennisTV.com)

It’s the alpha-dog edge; the lesser-accomplished countrymen come on court, for whatever reason, with far less intrinsic belief in victory than their talent might indicate.

Lajovic played that way, especially in the first set. But of course, Djokovic’s play had something to do with that.

Djokovic is 13-1 against Viktor Troicki, with Troicki’s only win coming in their first meeting back in 2007. He’s 5-2 against Janko Tipsarevic. And in his only previous meeting with Lajovic, Djokovic dropped just three games.

Still, Djokovic’s movement looked good. His serve motion seemed more relaxed and effective than it did in the U.S. last month. He was clinical.

It was the first time the Serb, because of the drop in his ranking, failed to get a first-round bye in Monte Carlo since his first appearance in 2006. He lost to then-No. 1 Roger Federer in three sets that year.

Coric next up for Djokovic

The next challenge will come in the second round, where Djokovic will face Croatia’s Borna Coric.

Longtime former coach Marian Vajda, who rejoined Team Djokovic for a 10-day clay prep period in Spain, watches on Monday in Monte Carlo with Djokovic’s agent Edoardo Artaldi. (TennisTV.com)

As a teenager, Coric was touted as Djokovic’s stylistic clone, in the way a young Grigor Dimitrov assumed that role with Federer.

These days, that mantel seems to fall on South Korea’s Hyeon Chung, as tennis moves on with its flavors of the month when early promise takes longer to deliver.

Djokovic and Coric have met just once, two years ago in Madrid. Djokovic won 6-2, 6-4 in the second round and went on to win the tournament.

Coric was ranked No. 40 then. Monday, his ranking dropped 11 spots when he didn’t play Marrakech last week (a tournament he won a year ago). So he sits at No. 39, although few would argue that he’s a much better player now, than he was two years ago.

The winner will play the winner between No. 5 seed Dominic Thiem and Andrey Rublev of Russia.

(Screen shots from TennisTV.com)

Teenager Auger-Aliassime falls in Monte Carlo

It’s a delicate balance, the reining in of a tennis thoroughbred that everyone – including himself – wants to gallop to the top like, yesterday.

Generally, the team around Canadian teenager Félix Auger-Aliassime has done a masterful job of taking these fledgling moments of his promising career one step at a time.

But perhaps a wild card at this week’s Masters 1000 in Monte Carlo might have been a step too far, too quickly.

That, of course, is in retrospect, after the Canadian went down 6-2, 6-7 (4), 6-1 to experienced lefty Mischa Zverev in his first-round match on Sunday.

If he pulls it off, and faces No. 7 seed Lucas Pouille in the second round, maybe you can say, “Okay, he was ready.” But coming in, through two Challenger-level clay-court events, the teenager had won just one match, to a player very close to his age. And even that one wasn’t easy.

So he wasn’t exactly on a roll of clay-court confidence as he entered the picturesque environs of the Monte Carlo Country Club.

No rhythm against experienced lefty

You could see Auger-Aliassime learning on the job with every passing moment against Zverev. But in the end, much of the outcome was in the hands of his 30-year-old opponent.

Zverev flinched once. But he didn’t flinch twice.

“Experience is sometimes good, sometimes bad. In the second set I was getting a little too defensive,” Zverev said during an on-court interview after the win. “He was playing really, really well. He has a great future – he’s 12-13 years younger than me, so he has many more years to go.”

Auger-Aliassime
Zverev said after the match that he got too defensive in the second set, waiting for his much-younger opponent to give it to him. The TennisTV stats bear that out.

Overall, calm and cool

The biggest step up Auger-Aliassime has taken in the last year is on the emotional side. His competitive temperament is far more even-keeled now. And when Zverev took his foot off the gas in the second set, he kept his cool and got on a roll.

The young Canadian was having all kinds of trouble holding serve. Three games into the second set, the clock was pushing 25 minutes – and Zverev only needed about two minutes to hold serve in the middle game.

Auger-Aliassime
A roar from Auger-Aliassime after he takes the second-set tiebreak. The third set went quickly, though.

Zverev was up 6-2, 4-2 and had three break points in that seventh game.  Somehow, after more than 14 minutes, Auger-Aliassime managed to hold. And break. And then hold again.

After a flurry of points against serve in the eventual tiebreak, two unforced errors by Zverev gave the kid the set.

Auger-AliassimeThose errors came when the German was trying to pull the trigger too early. And, in retrospect, they set the tone for the decider.

Zverev came back from a bathroom break with his mindset back to what had worked so well in the first set. He stepped into the court a little more again. And Auger-Aliassime began to display his first signs of frustration.

That second set had taken nearly an hour and a half. And the tension surrounding those monumental holds of serve may finally have shown.

Auger-Aliassime was broken at love in the final game, after one final too-hasty backhand went right into the net. And so Zverev went through.  He was helped by 62 unforced errors by his younger opponent – far too many even if, having made 35 of them in the second set, Auger-Aliassime still won the set.

Post-match runner-up interview

The teenager then enjoyed another new experience – an on-court interview after a defeat.

A year ago, he might well have cut a disconsolate figure. But he handled this with impressive grace, helped by the fact that he shares a language with the majority of the Monte Carlo crowd – the majority of which was firmly behind him during the match.

“Thank you to everyone, thank you for living this moment with me – a really nice first,” he said. “I would have hoped to keep it going in the third, but I’ll get back to training, and I’ll come back stronger next year.”  

More matches needed

The downside of the Masters 1000 upgrade for Auger-Aliassime, of course, is that now he must wait more than a week before he can play another match.

Given he only began his season in February, after rehabbing a knee injury suffered during off-season training in Dubai with Roger Federer, he’s a little behind in that area.

Auger-Aliassime

It’s a different scenario than his appearances at Indian Wells and Miami last month. 

There, he maximized. Auger-Aliassime defeated two solid players in qualifying and earned his way into his first ATP Tour main draw – at a Masters 1000, no less. He posted his first top-100 win against countryman Vasek Pospisil, and he showed well against the top Canadian, an inspired Milos Raonic.

Lessons learned

The kid learned his lesson there, cutting it a little close in arriving for the Challenger the week before and losing in the first round.

Auger-AliassimeBut the upside was that Auger-Aliassime was able to practice in the unusual conditions for a week. And when he got to the big event, he was ready.

Auger-Aliassime learned another lesson the following week in Miami, where he went out in brutally hot, humid conditions against American Mackenzie McDonald in the qualifying.

No ballcap, no ice towel on changeovers and in the end, Auger-Aliassime was overcome by the conditions (even though he very nearly won the match).

Sunday in Monte Carlo, another lesson learned as he adjusted to his crafty opponent’s game, and upped his patience level. Still, he had to save 6-of-7 break points in that second set. Had Zverev, who’s had a rough six months, been more confident in closing out matches these days, it might well have gone 6-2, 6-2.

But Auger-Aliassime made Zverev earn it. He gave himself a chance.

More dirt for Auger-Aliassime

Next up for the young Canadian is a return to the Challenger circuit, where he played events in Alicante, Spain and Barletta, Italy (with just one victory) before coming to Monte Carlo.

He is entered in a Challenger in Francavilla, Italy, where he may well be seeded. The week after that, he could play another ATP Tour event.

Auger-Aliassime is a few spots out of making the qualifying in Estoril, Portugal on his own ranking.

And as he learned at Indian Wells, the sweetest opportunities are the ones not given, but earned.

(All screenshots from TennisTV)

Monte Carlo Preview: absences and unknowns

With respect to the events this week in Houston and Marrakech, the ATP Tour’s clay-court season begins in earnest on Sunday in Monte Carlo.

The Rolex Masters is a bit of a stepbrother to the rest of the Masters 1000 tournaments, in that it is the only one that isn’t mandatory. 

As well, a majority of the higher-ranked American players tend to skip it. Many play Houston, because it’s at home. And there are with two more Masters 1000 tournaments in Madrid and Rome coming up on clay before it all concludes at the French Open.

Leaving the U.S. now would mean three full months on the road, through the end of Wimbledon in mid-July. With the first two months of that on a surface that most of them don’t feel they have a legitimate chance to do major damage on, that’s a tough slog.

So you can see where they’re coming from, in that sense.

But notable absences in Monte Carlo is not a new story. A year ago, there were plenty of big names missing: Federer, del Potro, Raonic, Kyrgios, Monfils, Gasquet, Nishikori.

Injured top guns still missing

Andy Murray was the No. 1 seed in Monte Carlo a year ago. But he’s not there. The Scot, his ranking now down to No. 30, is still rehabbing after hip surgery in January and expects to be back for the grass.

Stan Wawrinka, who was the No. 3 seed in 2017, has struggled to come back after knee surgery. He tried in Australia, and for three weeks straight, in Sofia, Rotterdam and Marseille. But as it went along, it was clear he wasn’t ready.

But Wawrinka was never entered in Monte Carlo. He has, however, signed on for Madrid and Rome.

Both lost in the third round last year: Murray to Albert Ramos-Viñolas (who reached the final), and Wawrinka to Pablo Cuevas, a fine clay-court player.

And then … there is Federer

Even in his younger years, Roger Federer wasn’t a Monte Carlo lock. He skipped it in 2003-04. He lost in the final to Rafael Nadal three straight years from 2006-08 (the first of them was so long ago, it was a best-of-five set match). He took a pass in 2010, 2013 and 2014, and missed it last year as he skipped the entire clay-court swing, including the French Open.

Monte
No del Potro, no Federer:two of the most popular players in the men’s game are missing in Monte Carlo.

Federer’s best recent shot at winning it was in 2014. He escaped Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarters and beat Novak Djokovic in straight sets in the semis – only to fall to Wawrinka in the final. In that match, he was a couple of points away from winning it in straight sets in the second-set tiebreak.

A pretty sure wager at this point – if there were betting in tennis, that is – is that he’ll never win it.

Federer has gotten some stick for skipping the clay season again. But still, that doesn’t mean he would have been in the draw this week.

Juan Martin del Potro is even less of an habitué. He played it in 2008 (qualifying) and 2009, not again until 2013, and not since. He is playing Madrid, Rome and the French Open this year.

The wounded warriors: Djokovic

Murray and Wawrinka are still out. But what about the rest of the “missing in late 2017” crew, the most significant being Novak Djokovic?

Djokovic is in for Monte Carlo, which is his residence. He is a two-time champion (2013 and 2015) But because of his injury absence in the second half of 2017, and his lack of results in 2018, his ranking is down to No. 13 and he is seeded No. 9.

The Serb did not get the luck of the draw, that’s for sure. 

His first-round match will come against a qualifier. After that, it could be Borna Coric, once hailed as his stylistic successor. Then, No. 5 seed Dominic Thiem, acknowledged as the best of the next generation on clay. And then … top seed Rafael Nadal.

Djokovic defeated Coric the only time they played.

He faced Thiem the last two years during the second week of the French Open, beating him in straight sets in 2016 and losing to him in straight sets a year ago – after he had given up just one game to the Austrian two weeks prior in Rome.

Monte

But Djokovic comes into the clay-court season short of match play. And, after both Andre Agassi and Radek Stepanek left Team Djoko, he recruited longtime former coach Marian Vajda to help him prepare. So there has been a lot happening behind the scenes.

How he’ll play is the wild card this week. Djokovic is a great clay-court player. But it’s not a Nadal-type situation where you could posit, “Oh, he’s been struggling. But now he’s back on his favorite surface so all is well.”

There’s just no way to predict when the former No. 1 will turn the corner. It could be this week, or next week – or even on grass.

He does have some extra support in Monte Carlo in friend and countryman Janko Tipsarevic (although Tipsarevic doesn’t exactly look dressed for court work!)

The wounded warriors: Raonic and Nishikori

As for Milos Raonic, another Monte Carlo resident, he’s back after a year’s absence. The last three times the Canadian played, from 2014-16, he reached the quarterfinals.

Raonic’s 2018 season began slowly, after numerous injuries in 2017 kept him off the courts and – just as importantly – out of the gym. But on the American hard-court swing, he began to look like the old Raonic again.

Monte

While there has been no official announcement, it appears Goran Ivanisevic has been elected to the board of Milos Raonic Inc. Ivanisevic is with the Canadian in Monte Carlo, after their successful Indian Wells-Miami test together.

Also with Raonic is physio Milan Amanovic, who was part of Team Djokovic during his dominant streak and left along with Vajda a year ago. Amanovic had been with Raonic during his brief return to play last fall in Asia.

Another player in the draw is Kei Nishikori, whose ranking is down to No. 39.

This is only the second career appearance for the Japanese star in Monte Carlo. But he does have some clay bona fides.

Nishikori has been stopped by Djokovic in Madrid and Rome too many times to count. But he has reached the final there. And he was a quarterfinalist a year ago at the French Open.

First-round matches to watch

The top eight seeds – Nadal, Cilic, Zverev, Dimitrov, Thiem, Goffin, Pouille and Carreño Busta – have first-round byes.

But there are some intriguing first-round matches  – starting on Sunday as the main draw gets under way.

Félix Auger-Aliassime vs. Mischa Zverev

Auger

Canadian teenager Félix Auger-Aliassime, a wild card, faces Germany’s Mischa Zverev in a match in which the two players are 13 years apart in age.

Auger-Aliassime has been playing clay-court Challengers in Europe. But he has not had much success. This is a major step up, and probably not a necessary one at this stage. But if a Masters 1000 tournament is going to give you a wild card, you take it.

[12] Tomas Berdych vs. Kei Nishikori

It’s a tough draw for both, made possible by the slide in the rankings by Nishikori because of his injury absence. 

Nishikori is 4-1 against Berdych. The Czech’s only win came in Monte Carlo in 2012.

[10] Diego Schwartzman vs. Guido Pella

field

It’s an all-Argentine matchup between two players who just a week ago, were teammates as Argentina won its Davis Cup tie against Chile.

They’ve met four times – all on clay, and all but one at the Futures and Challenger level. Pella defeated Schwartzman in four sets in the first round of the 2016 French Open. In fact, Pella has won all four meetings.

Kyle Edmund vs. Alexandr Dolgopolov

Great Britain’s Kyle Edmund is still alive in Marrakech, there he played two matches on Saturday and will play the final on Sunday. Without a first-round bye in Monte Carlo, he’ll have to make a quick turnaround.

As for Dolgopolov, he had been out since losing to Diego Schwartzman at the Australian Open with a right wrist injury. He returned this week in Marrakech and lost to qualifier Andrea Arnaboldi. 

He’s 2-0 against Edmund, but both matches were on grass, and a few years ago – before Edmund made his breakthrough.

The draw (on paper)

Here are the project third-round matches, if all goes according to ranking.

[1] Nadal vs. [16] Mannarino
[5] Thiem vs [9] Djokovic
[4] Dimitrov vs. [15] Ramos-Viñolas
[6] Goffin vs. [11] Bautista-Agut

[7] Pouille vs. [10] Schwartzman
[3] A Zverev vs. [13] Fognini
[8] Carreño-Busta vs. [12] Berdych
[2] Cilic vs. [14] Raonic

Projected quarterfinals

[1] Nadal vs. [5] Thiem/[9] Djokovic
[4] Dimitrov vs. [6] Goffin
[3] Zverev vs. [7] Pouille
[2] Cilic vs. [8] Carreño-Busta

The Americans

(Pic: Houston ATP tournament)

As mentioned above, the American contingent is light in Monte Carlo.

Contrast that with this week’s event in Houston, which featured John Isner, Frances Tiafoe, Ernesto Escobedo, Steve Johnson, Jack Sock, Tim Smyczek, Taylor Fritz, Ryan Harrison, Denis Kudla, Tennys Sandgren, Donald Young, Stefan Kozlov, Bjorn Frantangelo and Sam Querrey (and wild card Mackenzie McDonald) in the main draw.

Eight of them would have been straight into Monte Carlo, from Isner down to Tiafoe.

But only two – Sandgren and Donaldson (who didn’t play in Houston) are down for the week.

Sandgren, whose ATP Tour main draw debut came a year ago in Houston, is the No. 8 seed there this week and is Saturday’s semifinal against Ivo Karlovic.

He faces Philipp Kohlschreiber in the first round in Monte Carlo. Donaldson gets Ramos-Viñolas, the 2017 finalist.

Charity Day in Monte Carlo

At first glance, it looks like Monte Carlo’s powerhouse men’s interclub team all went out en masse for a hit and giggle.

Novak Djokovic, the Zverev brothers, Marin Cilic, David Goffin, Grigor Dimitrov  were on hand – a powerhouse lineup. All went out and did their part for La Fondation Prince Albert II de Monaco. The Monaco sovereign’s charity is devoted to the environment and sustainable development.

But there were some non-resident exceptions: Dominic Thiem (still a resident of Austria) and Lucas Pouille (Dubai) also took part.

(Some celebs most of us in North America have never heard of also participated).

Meanwhile, some pretty high-level qualifying matches were going on on the outside courts. Seppi vs de Minaur, Troicki vs Stakhovsky and Delbonis vs Mahut toiled as the stars took over the Court Central.

TennisTV streamed the charity event on Facebook:

 

As well, Djokovic went out and had a little hit with his son, Stefan.

Main draw begins Sunday

There is a 56-player singles draw and only a week to get it done. So matches in the Monte Carlo main draw will start on Sunday.

The final round of qualifying also is happening, including Nicolas Mahut vs. Jérémy Chardy. With that quality, sometimes it’s hard to tell the main draw from the qualifying.

Some matches to look out on Monday for involve a couple of wild cards.

Aussie Thanasi Kokkinakis (22) will meet Russia’s Karen Khachanov (21) in a battle of young guns.

And 17-year-old Canadian Félix Auger-Aliassime will play Mischa Zverev, 13 years older.

Nos. 10, 50 – and 70 for Nadal

The stars aligned for Rafael Nadal in the picturesque stadium he can rightfully call a second home.

The Spaniard bit into his first championship trophy in nearly a full year after taking care of compatriot Albert Ramos-Viñolas 6-1, 6-3 in the Monte Carlo Masters final Sunday.

“I think I was playing a little bit better every day. It’s sure that in the quarter-finals against (Diego) Schwartzman the court was so heavy so it was a little bit more difficult for me. But at all times I think I was serving well, and I was doing the right things,” Nadal told Sky Sports. “I was hitting very well the backhand the whole week. With the forehand every day I did a little better. I think I played a very solid tournament.”

It was Nadal’s 10th title in Monte Carlo. It was the 50th clay-court title of his career. And it was his 70th career title overall. The sequence of perfectly round milestone numbers couldn’t have been scripted any better.

“I think that to win this tournament 10 times, it’s, maybe, impossible for another person,” said Ramos-Viñolas, who was playing in his first career Masters 1000 final and was so physically exhausted by the journey that he had nothing left when he arrived at the destination.

Nadal
When it was over, Ramos was completely exhausted after a career-best week that vaults him into the 20 for the first time.

Ramos-Viñolas had gone to three gruelling sets in his previous three matches. In succession, he defeated world No. 1 Andy Murray, world No. 8 Marin Cilic and Lucas Pouille, the rising French star who will be at a career-high No. 14 on Monday.

After a quick first set, he needed some attention from the trainer. But despite giving it his all, he never came close to having what he needed to challenge his much-decorated countryman. Still, Ramos-Viñolas will enter the top-20 for the first time on Monday, at age 29.

For Nadal, whose last title came exactly a year ago in Barcelona, the road couldn’t have been more friendly.

After a year-long drought, a perfect road

Nadal
The ballkids formed the shape of the No. “10” during the trophy ceremony, a nice touch.

The top seeds were handled by other players. Ramos-Viñolas took care of Murray. David Goffin handled No. 2 Novak Djokovic (and had little left for Nadal in a semi-final that was marred by a match-turning overrule by chair umpire Cédric Mourier).

Nadal’s countryman Pablo Carreño Busta helped out by pushing Djokovic to the very limit the day before he fell to Goffin. No. 3 seed Stan Wawrinka arrived in Monte Carlo without the legs to go the distance.

To top it off, Nadal played a fellow Spaniard in the final. In that situation, he was 14-0 coming into Sunday.

Nadal
Nadal’s winning moments were played on the big screen after his victory, reminding everyone of the pirate-pants era.

To win a title, though, there are no easy roads or hard roads. You can only beat the player in front of you that day. Nadal’s 6-1, 6-1 dismantling of the up-and-coming Alexander Zverev in the third round – on the German’s 20th birthday another round number) – was as startling as it was comprehensive.

The 10 titles are the most by any ATP Tour player at any single event. Nadal now has 29 Masters 1000 titles – three more than Roger Federer (who closed the gap with his wins at Indian Wells and Miami this year) and one fewer than Djokovic.

Nadal heads to Barcelona this week to play his matches on a stadium court called … “Pista Rafa Nadal”. It’s not Monte Carlo; Barcelona is a lower-level 500 event. But he will be going for No. 10 there as well.

And then, another quest for 10 at the French Open.

(All screenshots from TennisTV.com)

When a tennis longshot comes in …

At the start of this week’s Monte Carlo Masters, Romain Arneodo had earned a total of $210 this season – $156 in singles, and $54 in doubles.

He had barely even played; a few low-level Futures in France and a couple of Davis Cup ties for Monaco. When you don’t have any money, playing professional tennis is impossible.

Despite that, and even though the 24-year-old was outside the top 800 in the world in both singles and doubles, he earned a wild card into the doubles on the “hometown player”-Davis Cup card. His partner, Frenchman Hugo Nys, is based in Monte Carlo.

In a doubles draw full of top singles players and the best doubles teams in the world, you’d expect a quick first-round exit and a small cheque to pick up on the way out. But the longest of long shots has come in.

Despite his lowly ranking, Arneodo’s Davis Cup participation at least merited him a mugshot on his ATP Tour page (ATPTour.com)

Arneodo and Nys are in the doubles semi-finals after navigating their way through some extremely tough teams.

No cakewalk draw

The pair defeated Pablo Carreño Busta and Guillermo Garcia-Lopez 6-4, 6-3, in the first round. The Spaniards are both ranked in the top 30 in doubles in addition to being fine singles players. And even though they had played just two tournaments together this year, they stand tied for 10th in the ATP Tour doubles race to London. They reached the semi-finals of the Australian Open this year, and the finals of the US Open last summer.

In the second round, Arneodo and Nys upset No. 8 seeds Jean-Julien Rojer and Horia Tecau 7-5, 7-6 (2). That pair won eight titles together in 2014 alone and took both the Wimbledon and ATP Tour Finals titles in 2015.

The quarter-finals already was an impressive result. But the long shots continued their run Friday. They upset the No. 3 seeds, Jamie Murray and Bruno Soares, 6-2, 6-7 (3) [10-3] to reach the semis.

Arneodo
Nys, a long way down the French Davis Cup depth chart, is Mr. Anonymous on his own page.

Their next challenge will be the unseeded team of Rohan Bopanna and Pablo Cuevas, as they try to pull off the impossible.

What does this dream week mean to them? Well, it’s a life-changer.

For one thing, the more than $33,000 (US) each has earned so far will go a long way towards defraying some of their expenses. It’s as much as Nys had earned in 2016 and 2017 combined. And it’s as much as Arneodo earned in 2015, 2016 and 2017 combined.

“I won’t say my life will change, because I’m already playing tennis all year, but we’re going to win a lot of points. So maybe our life is going to change tomorrow,” Nys told Sky Sports in a television interview Friday.

Arneodo

Arneodo, who said he stopped playing the tour a year ago and had planned to go for his coach’s license next week, may be wavering. “Maybe it’s going to change a lot. Maybe I’m going to change my mind, because we’re going to get many points here. So maybe I’ll going to start again playing some tournaments with Hugo,” he said. “I don’t know.”

(H/T to Annie-Jean for the Sky interview)

In terms of rankings, Nys will move from his current career-best ranking of No. 181 to just outside the top 100. For Arneodo, down in the abyss with just 45 points on his resumé, the additional 360 points will mean a jump from No. 851 to … just outside the top 175.

They’ll have a full year’s grace to take advantage of the higher-level tournaments they’ll now have access to, to maximize before they have to defend all those points at next year’s Monte Carlo event. For a player like Arneodo, who had given up the dream (see Tweet above), it’s manna from heaven.

Guillaume Couillard

The Cannes, France-born Arneodo plays for Monaco. Nys, born in scenic Évian-les-Bains, France (right across Lac Léman from Lausanne, Switzerland) lives in Monaco. They share a coach, Guillaume Couillard.

Couillard, a 41-year-old Monégasque and Carlos Moyá lookalike, never reached higher than No. 569 in singles and No. 839 in doubles as a player.

So you know he’s living every moment of this along with them.

Not on court, Raonic still holds court

Milos Raonic passed on playing in Monte Carlo, still not ready to return to match play as he rehabs a hamstring injury. A resident of the principality, the Canadian still showed up at the tournament Tuesday to sign autographs. And he also managed to be featured in the legendary Monte Carlo annual Player Revue, which has produced some classic skits over the year. We’re kind of wondering where his belt is, though. Maybe he was running late.