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By Tim Clement. Last Updated: 25/04/13 9:19pm
Rafael Nadal: Eight-time champion on the Monte Carlo clay
It will take a brave punter to oppose Rafael Nadal in Monte Carlo as the 'King of Clay' looks to reign in the principality for a ninth successive year.
The season's opening clay Masters event has seen dominance like no other with Nadal undefeated in a decade, with a solitary defeat coming as a 16-year-old in 2003 to Guillermo Coria.
The Spaniard looks as tough as ever to take on, displaying ominously impressive form since coming back from a seven-month lay-off, with three titles already landed.
World number one Novak Djokovic is considered Nadal's main threat but has been a doubt to even make the event, having injured his ankle during Davis Cup duty last weekend.
Andy Murray will be targeting an improved performance on the clay to aid his assault on the world number one spot, but hardly reaps the rewards of his status as second seed with Nadal placed in his half of the draw.
With Roger Federer and David Ferrer absent due to scheduling and "physical problems" respectively, the other quarter of the draw is wide open.
Classified as Category A by the ATP, the clay courts at Monte Carlo are as slow as they come on tour. Generally considered similar to those at Roland Garros, players will be prepared for some attritional tennis being served up.
The mild spring will have done nothing to speed up the courts but temperatures are now climbing into the 20s in the principality, which is standard for this time of the year, but rain is forecast for the middle of the week, which will slow the courts down even more.
Nadal put an end to seven successive final losses to Djokovic in a one-sided battle, losing just four games to claim the title without dropping a set all week. The Serb had, however, done well even to make the final as he dealt with the news of his grandfather's passing. Gilles Simon enjoyed a rare semi-final run while Robin Haase also surprised many by making the quarter-finals.
Andy Murray: Outside chance
Nadal may head to Monaco down at fifth in the world rankings but is very much the man to beat in Monte Carlo. The 26-year-old looked as strong as ever in romping to the Indian Wells title, showing no signs of his knee problem, while he will be fresh again after missing Miami. He has also be handed an ideal draw, avoiding his main threat Djokovic and being placed in same quarter as Janko Tipsarevic, who is enduring a difficult campaign. There's little point in backing the Spaniard unless going in with a sizeable stake, but supporting him to win without dropping a single set (9/4) offers value.
The Serb proved in 2011 that he can more than match Nadal on clay when at the top of his game, but the ankle injury sustained last week is a real worry on such a physically demanding surface. While avoiding the Spaniard in the draw is certainly good news, Juan Monaco could provide a test in the final 16 while Juan Martin del Potro, who won their most recent clash in Indian Wells, is likely to await in the quarter-finals.
The new world number two will have his sights set on topping the rankings and knows an improved clay swing is vital, having failed to make a single semi-final on the red dirt in 2012. Murray's coach Ivan Lendl is a three-time French Open champion so is the perfect man to bring along his game, while confidence will be high after his hard-fought triumph at the recent Miami Masters. The Scot possesses all the attributes to be a fine clay-court player, with great defensive skills and immense fitness and should be expected to improve on his quarter-final run last year, when he lost in three sets to Tomas Berdych. With Nadal likely to be waiting in the final four, it is a big ask for the 25-year-old to better his best performances here, having previously made the semis in 2009 and 2011.
The world number six will be looking to make the most of his status as fourth seed here in the absence of Federer and Ferrer. He also looks the most likely to benefit if Djokovic's ankle injury has not healed sufficiently as the second-highest seed in the first half of the draw. However, the Czech has proved powerless against the world number one, falling short in each of their last 11 meetings. Berdych could also face Richard Gasquet in the quarter-finals, having lost their recent meeting in Miami at the same stage. While clay is certainly not the powerful 27-year-old's favoured surface, he is an apt player on the red dirt, having claimed two 250 titles on it, but stands little chance against Djokovic or Nadal if free of injury.
Another solid claycourt player whose weapons are somewhat neutralised on the red dirt, Del Potro returns to Monte Carlo after missing the event last year. The 'Tower of Tandil' has four clay titles to his name but remains without a single Masters crown. Placed in the same quarter as Djokovic, Del Potro's chances are somewhat dependent on the Serb's fitness, but the 24-year-old has proved a match for the world number one, with victories at the Olympics and Indian Wells.
Best of the rest
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga's (66/1) game is hampered more than most by converting to the red dirt, having failed to reach a single final on the surface. Gasquet (33/1) is enjoying some fine form in 2013, reaching the semi-finals in Miami and claiming titles in Doha and Montpellier. Eighth seed Tipsarevic (250/1), in contrast, ended a five-match losing streak by making the round of 16 in Miami, meaning Gilles Simon (200/1) looks Nadal's most likely quarter-final opponent. Nicolas Almagro (50/1), who is second only to Nadal is the title tally on clay of the active players, is enjoying some fine form and is as likely as Tsonga to trouble Murray in the fourth quarter.
With Federer and Ferrer absent, Djokovic's ankle a worry and Murray's record on clay modest, looking past Nadal to triumph defies various levels of logic. It does, however, open up the opportunity for one of the game's lesser names to make a good run. Almagro would have been the pick for an each-way bet had he avoided being in Nadal's half, but still looks good value to win the fourth quarter. Del Potro is a big price at 18/1, especially if Djokovic is not quite 100 per cent, while Gasquet will fancy another semi-final run with Berdych opposable on clay.
Juan Martin del Potro each-way - 18/1
Richard Gasquet to win second quarter - 9/4
Andy Murray to win fourth quarter - 4/6