Rafael Nadal has begun his hunt for a 12th Monte-Carlo Masters title in spectacularly good form, so can anyone seriously challenge over the coming weeks?
Having already destroyed Roberto Bautista-Agut and Grigor Dimitrov in Monte-Carlo, Rafael Nadal at 32 continues to look as imperious as ever.
It has left us with a familiar question for this time of year: who is going to beat Nadal on clay in Europe this spring?
The main challengers are likely to be, predictably, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and possibly Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev, although the latter two won’t be beating him this week having already crashed out in Monte-Carlo.
Djokovic is one of the few players that has managed to beat the King of Clay ON clay, but when Nadal is in this kind of form and the confidence he has on this surface, he is difficult to stop.
All will depend on Djokovic’s form but if fatigue or injury was to enter the equation for Nadal, perhaps later on in the clay-court season, then anything is possible.
Moving onto Federer. There is so much intrigue surrounding how well the Swiss will cope on his transition to clay after all this time. It is very difficult to predict but the Swiss master has shown he can still one of the best clay-court players in the world.
For Nadal, he could pose as the movie villain who pops up mid-way through the film. Although, we won’t see Federer enter the fray until the Madrid Masters in the second half of the clay-court season, he has shown expertise on this surface before in helping his country win the 2014 Davis Cup in France and has pointed out how, as a youngster, he was brought up on the clay.
Much again will hinge on Nadal’s energy levels in Madrid and Paris, the only two tournaments Federer has so far entered to play, but it is possible someone else could knock out Nadal giving a chance for the Swiss to profit and perhaps win another clay-court title.
Then there’s Dominic Thiem. After his shocking loss in Monte Carlo to Dušan Lajović, there must be doubts as to whether he is in the kind of form required to upset Nadal.
However, the Austrian is perhaps the most likely player to beat Nadal again and the one bogey player that the Spaniard may in fact be genuinely concerned about. In the past two seasons, Thiem has beaten Nadal at the Italian Open and then in Madrid last year, preventing Nadal from claiming a 5/5 clean sweep.
Nadal did actually beat Thiem on a number of occasions during the past clay-court seasons, including the final at Roland Garros, and clay is Thiem’s best surface, so don’t be surprised if he troubles Nadal again on the red dirt this season.
And finally, Alexander Zverev, who continues to disappoint this season and was easily beaten by Fabio Fognini in Monte Carlo. The German has been flattened by Nadal in their previous match-ups, but is the player that has profited the most from Nadal’s odd defeats during the past two clay seasons.
In the past two seasons, Thiem’s wins over the former world number one have allowed Zverev to triumph at the Italian Open and in Madrid last year, so those titles will give the young German a huge amount of confidence going forward in this long clay stretch.
Whether he can beat Nadal, though, is another story. Currently not in the strongest form, the change of surface may well be what’s needed to give Zverev’s season the jump start it so desperately needed.
Others may enter the equation such as specialists Stan Wawrinka, David Goffin and Kei Nishikori, but they all appear very much out of form. While Fognini may have beaten Zverev he is often inconsistent and seen as a one-trick pony. Nadal will not view any of them as too much of a threat.
There is a chance that youngsters such as Borna Coric, into the quarter-finals of Monte Carlo for the first time, Denis Shapovalov, and Stefanos Tsitsipas could mount a challenge during the clay-court season. However, beating Nadal is a whole different beast, especially with the huge experience advantage he holds on a surface where it matters the most.
It will be fascinating to see how this clay-court season unfolds but one thing we do know is that the clay continues to be Nadal’s very own playground and he will be incredibly difficult to beat.
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