Monte Carlo Preview: Djokovic, Nadal on opposite sides in spring debut
The Monte Carlo draw has already given us the answer to two new questions that we may be asking throughout the clay-court season: Are Novak and Rafa on the same side of the draw? And could Nadal and Felix Auger-Aliasssime face off?
April 09, 2021
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Tennis returns to the Principality of Monaco after a year away, and, fittingly, it will bring the ATP’s current two-man aristocracy—Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal—back to the courts for the first time since the Australian Open. On Monday, the 30-something legends will start once again on the road to Roland Garros, and what everyone assumes will be another meeting in Paris with monumental consequences for their long-running Grand Slam title chase.
Rafa vs. Nole is a perennial part of the sport’s landscape, especially during spring. But the Monte Carlo draw has already given us the answer to two new questions that we may be asking throughout the clay-court season:
(1) Are Nadal and Djokovic on the same side of the draw? In case you missed it, Daniil Medvedev recently took over the No. 2 spot from Rafa in the rankings, which means Nadal is in the swing position at No. 3. This week, he’s on Medvedev’s side, but unless he moves back up to No. 2, Nadal could ended up facing Djokovic in semifinals this spring, including at Roland Garros.
(2) Could Nadal and Felix Auger-Aliasssime face off? This week Auger Aliassime announced that he has started working with Toni Nadal. Which leads to the obvious question: If Rafa and FAA play, will Toni sit in the Canadian’s box and coach against his nephew? And would he do it at Roland Garros? That’s hard for me to imagine. Unless Rafa and Auger Aliassime meet in the final in Monte Carlo, the question won’t be answered this week; they’re in opposite halves.
Will those issues settled, here’s a look at the draw in more detail, and what else we can expect as the clay swing begins and the stakes on the men’s side begin to rise.
Djokovic is the top seed, and he’s playing on his home courts. But you never know what you’re going to get from him here. He has been the champion twice, and runner-up two other times, but he has also suffered his share of early exits, and hasn’t reached the final since 2015. Sometimes he has been injured, other times he hasn’t seemed quite ready for the shift to clay. In 2016, the only year Djokovic won Roland Garros, he lost his opener in Monte Carlo to Jiri Vesely. So whatever happens to him this week should be probably taken with a grain of la terre battue.
Which is probably a good thing for Djokovic, because his draw has its share of speed bumps. He could play Jannik Sinner in his first match; Miami champ Hubert Hurkacz or 2019 Monte Carlo runner-up Dusan Lajovic after that; and Alexander Zverev in the quarters.
The last time we heard from Matteo Berretini, he was announcing that he had to pull out of a highly-anticipated fourth-round match with Stefanos Tsitsipas at the Australian Open with an abdominal injury. Will we finally get to see that encounter, four months later in Monte Carlo? Tsitsipas and Berrettini are the top two seeds in this quarter, and each can play as well on clay as he can on other surfaces. But as in Djokovic’s quarter above, there are obstacles for both men: Tsitsipas will start against either Lorenzo Musetti or Aslan Karatsev, while Berrettini may have to contend with Gael Monfils and Alex De Minaur.
First-round matches to watch: Musetti vs. Karatsev; Auger-Aliassime vs. Cristian Garin
It’s strange to see a  next to Nadal’s name in Monte Carlo, a tournament he has won 11 times. But something tells me it won’t hurt Rafa’s confidence in his capabilities on clay. Of more worry, perhaps, is his physical condition; he had back problems in Australia, and we haven’t seen him since. The first seed he could face is Grigor Dimitrov, and his quarterfinal opponent, if all goes according to play, will be Andrey Rublev. That would be an intergenerational clash to see. Rublev hasn’t taken a set in either of his two previous meetings with his boyhood idol.
How will Medvedev, who has never won a match at the French Open, feel about being seeded higher than Nadal at a clay-court event? Probably a little sheepish. But the Russian did knock Djokovic out in the quarters in Monte Carlo in 2019, a win that signaled the start of his long rise that season.
Of the top three seeds this year, Medvedev may have the best overall draw; his prospective quarterfinal opponent is Diego Schwartzman. But another player does loom, if a little unpredictably. Fabio Fognini is technically the defending champion after his surprise run to the title in 2019; he and Medvedev could meet in the third round.
Semifinals: Djokovic d. Tsitsipas; Nadal d. Medvedev
Final: Nadal d. Djokovic