Rafa to reign again
Tim Clement looks at the best bets for the upcoming Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters
By Tim Clement. Last Updated: 13/04/14 5:36pm
Rafael Nadal: Justifies odds-on favouritism in Monte Carlo
Tim Clement expects Rafael Nadal to regain the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters title in the coming week.
It never been more difficult to look past the dominant duo in men's tennis than at the Monte Carlo Masters, with strong cases to be made for Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.
As the greatest clay-court player in the history of the game, Nadal will go off as Sky Bet's odds-on favourite as he seeks a ninth title here, but it is Djokovic who is the defending champion.
Not that it has ever been a problem for either player but motivation will certainly not be in short supply, with the Spaniard looking to reclaim his crown while the Serb has the number one ranking in his sights.
Djokovic closed the gap in the head-to-head to 22-18 with a third successive win over Nadal in the Miami, wrapping up back-to-back Masters titles in the process.
While he trails 13-3 in meetings on the surface in question, those three wins were from the last seven clashes, suggesting the gap has been closed.
Having reasserted his authority on the red dirt after last year's Monte Carlo final defeat, Nadal has 5,100 points to defend during the clay swing compared to Djokovic's 1,910, providing the opportunity to claw back the world number one's 2,050-point lead during the European clay-court swing.
The fact that Djokovic has double the points of any other player might seem an unfair reflection of the state of the game given Stanislas Wawrinka's Australian Open triumph.
However, the fact that the top two hold all the Masters titles shows what an anomaly that result was.
Wawrinka has struggled with his form since that success, meaning he is back among the best of the rest in betting terms, with Roger Federer the main contender outside the top two at 12/1 with Sky Bet.
Andy Murray sits the event out as he ponders who to appoint as his next coach but would be double-figure odds anyway given his lack of form, both generally and on clay.
David Ferrer is naturally considered one of the shorter-priced outsiders but would do well to produce his best, having only played three matches since returning from an adductor injury.
While I'll reveal my outside fancies later on, the sensible bet seems to be backing a 41st meeting between Djokovic and Nadal in the principality.
The clay in Monte Carlo is as slow as it comes on tour and is considered the most reliable form guide for the French Open with the courts playing very similar.
Temperatures are expected to reach the low 20s during the tournament with no rain forecast. Drier clay means slightly faster play and a higher bounce, while damp conditions result in balls picking up moisture more significantly than on hard courts as play can continue amid light rain.
Rafael Nadal: Justifies odds-on favouritism in Monte Carlo
After eight years of dominance, Nadal lost his first match in Monte Carlo since 2003, going down 6-2 7-6 (7-1) to the Serb. It was their first meeting since Nadal's return from injury and was to be avenged by three successive defeats.
The contenders (and Sky Bet odds)
Heading into last year's tournament it would have been tough to find another sporting event so completely dominated by one player, with Nadal's name on the entry list equating to his name on the trophy in eight appearances from 2005 to 2012. The defeat to Djokovic here was all the more surprising given he'd just claimed the Indian Wells title, seeing him arrive on a 19-match winning streak. His form has been less impressive so far in 2014, suffering an early exit in Indian Wells before a straight-sets loss to Djokovic in the Miami Masters final. While it would take a monumental upset for him not to reach the final here, Nadal will have to be at the very top of his game to end a three-match losing streak to the Serb, even on his favoured surface.
The world No 2 should be full of confidence as reigning champion and fresh from back-to-back triumphs on the American hard courts. His coaching situation is slightly bizarre right now, with Marian Vajda returning in the absence of Boris Becker in America, where Djokovic picked up his first titles of the year. Becker and Vajda are both in Monte Carlo and it's tough to gauge what impact that will have on his game. Retaining the title here would set the wheels in motion for him regain the world No 1 spot but the fact that his title here was his only one on the red dirt last season justifies his status as outsider to Nadal.
The 17-time grand slam winner is certainly showing better form this year but he still appears some way off the big two, with Nadal still holding his number and Djokovic physically superior. Those differences are exaggerated on clay with Federer finding it more difficult against the big two. While titles on the red dirt look unlikely, racking up points will be key to Federer staying in the top four for Wimbledon, perhaps explaining his U-turn decision to take a last-minute wild card here. The Swiss star has not played here since 2011 and was a losing finalist in 2006, 2007 and 2008.
The world No 3 has failed to build on his Australian Open triumph, not making a quarter-final appearance since. Last-16 defeats to Kevin Anderson and Alexandr Dolgopolov were followed by poor Davis Cup displays, losing to 64th-ranked Andrey Golubev to jeopardise Switzerland's chances of seeing off Kazakhstan. Wawrinka boasts a decent record on clay, winning the Portugal Open last year and making the Madrid Masters final but the slower conditions handicap his aggressive game, explaining quarter-final exits in his last two visits.
The Czech has the power to trouble the best but, as with Federer and Wawrinka, sees the impact of his weapons significantly reduced by the surface. He suffered a third-round exit here last year before going on to make the semi-finals on the slightly quicker surfaces in Rome and Madrid and then losing his opener at Roland Garros. The 28-year-old has reached two semi-finals and two finals this year, putting him in a strong position to break into the big four with some decent results on the dirt, but Monte Carlo looks the least likely destination for him to lift the trophy.
The 32-year-old will look to halt a downward spiral after starting the year with some disappointing results and frustrating injuries. A series of defeats to significantly lower-ranked players has resulted in the Spaniard dropping down to sixth in the rankings, with the consequences being a place in Nadal's quarter here. Considered more of a contender due to his claycourt prowess than form, Ferrer holds no appeal due to a combination of poor form, lack of playing time since injury and a tough draw.
Best of the restWith it difficult enough making a case for the top seeds to oppose Nadal and Djokovic, it seems a thankless task picking out an outsider. Fabio Fognini is the one I like to take advantage if the top two tumble as he will be full of confidence following some good results and his Davis Cup heroics. The Italian, who has climbed to 13th in the world rankings, has won three titles on clay in the last 12 months and reached the semi-finals here last year, while a place in Federer's quarter must be considered favourable.
Djokovic may be the defending champion but Nadal is undoubtedly the 'King of Clay' and will be hungry for revenge. The Serb executed his tactic of hitting aggressively into Nadal's forehand in Miami, preventing big swings and nullifying the threat, but it will be far more difficult to do that on this slow clay. I'll go the whole hog and suggest Nadal will regain the title without dropping a set to give us a bit more value.
Nadal to win title without dropping a set - 100/30
Fabio Fognini each-way - 40/1