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.
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.
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!)
Look who’s there with Djokovic : pic.twitter.com/NmPT3wRfLs
— Carole Bouchard (@carole_bouchard) April 14, 2018
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.
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
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.
 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.
 Diego Schwartzman vs. Guido Pella
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.
 Nadal vs.  Mannarino
 Thiem vs  Djokovic
 Dimitrov vs.  Ramos-Viñolas
 Goffin vs.  Bautista-Agut
 Pouille vs.  Schwartzman
 A Zverev vs.  Fognini
 Carreño-Busta vs.  Berdych
 Cilic vs.  Raonic
 Nadal vs.  Thiem/ Djokovic
 Dimitrov vs.  Goffin
 Zverev vs.  Pouille
 Cilic vs.  Carreño-Busta
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.