Spain’s Rafael Nadal returns from his knee injury to play in the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, file)
Spain’s Rafael Nadal returns from his knee injury to play in the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, file)|Associated Press

Tennis: Abrams’ Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters Preview -- Nadal, Djokovic, Zverev, Thiem lead packed draw

Qualies start Saturday. Finals are next Sunday, April 21,

Neal Abrams

Neal Abrams

The Qualifying for the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters, an ATP 1000 Masters event played in Monte-Carlo, Monaco begins today. This premier clay court tournament features four out of the Top Five players , including eleven-time champion, Rafael Nadal, who is the second seed (Roger Federer will begin his limited clay court season later). The field also includes the only two other players to hoist the tournament trophy over the past 15 years, Novak Djokovic, this year’s top seed who won it twice, and Stan Wawrinka, who was the 2014 champion. As one of the premier tournaments in the world, the winner will take home 958,000 Euros, and the runner-up will receive 485,000 Euros. First round losers will receive plenty of consolation with their 19,000 Euros paychecks.

The ATP requires each tournament to seed based on their current rankings, and since the ATP rankings are calculated on a rolling 52-week year of results, the seedings are often misleading, especially when viewed in the context of setting up draws for the limited number of clay court tournaments the Tour offers. Here, where Rafa has been practically untouchable over the past 15 years, he is not considered the favorite, according to the ATP mandated seedings. Some other funky seedings include Russia’s Karen Khachanov, who sports a 2019 record of 7-7, is seeded 8th; Italian Fabio Fognini 4-7 this year yet is seeded 13th; and Canada’s rising star 18-year-old Felix Auger-Aliassime who sports a nifty 14-7 year-to-date record, yet not only is unseeded, but needed a wild card just to make it into the draw. Needless to say, it is time for the ATP to either revisit how their rankings are calculated, and perhaps base them on a moving 26-week schedule to make the rankings more reflective of current player results, or to allow, at the very least, each Masters 1000 and Grand Slam tournament to make their own seedings. This would allow the few big clay court tournaments to recognize that Nadal is the best clay court player in the world and reward him with the top seed. It would also allow the All-England Club to respect Roger Federer’s record of 8 Wimbledon titles on grass and seed him No. 1 there, rather than to seed Novak Djokavic first, with his four titles.

Nonetheless, this is an extraordinary event, and sports a strong 64-man draw and over 5.5 million Euros in total prize money. And how many of these Euros will be converted into dollars? Not many. There is only one -- one -- American in the draw, Californian Taylor Fritz, and there is very little chance he will become the first American champion in this principality since, well . . . ever! This tournament, established in 1897, has always featured the world’s best clay courters and has counted as it’s champion Bjorn Borg, Ivan Lendl, Ilie Nastase, Manolo Orantes, Guilermo Vilas, Mats Wilander, Sergei Bruguera, Tomas Muster, Guga Kuerten and Juan Carlos Ferraro, among others, there has never been a native-born American who has hoisted the winner’s trophy here in Monaco from what I could find in my research. But just because there aren’t many Yanks to watch, don’t believe that there won’t be some great tennis to catch here, because there will be.

Nadal is clearly the favorite, as, at this point in his career he simply adds to his clay-court championship records at almost every slow-court tournament he enters. But Djokovic is always dangerous, and as the top-ranked player in the world and the winner of the only Grand Slam tournament of 2019, he can never be counted out. Yet there are two young players who also are dangerous enough on clay to be counted as outside favorites: third-ranked Sascha Zverev and fourth-seeded Dominic Thiem, last year’s French Open finalist and the winner of the recent Masters 1000 event in Indian Wells, Calif., where he beat Federer in the finals. Other contenders include Kei Nishikori, Stefanos Tsitsipas and the above-mentioned Auger-Aliassime. Frankly, as strong as the field is, the rest are all pretenders, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be some heart-stopping moments to witness.

First round matchups of note include Roberto Bautista Agut squaring off against John Millman, Lucas Pouille tangling with Stan Wawrinka, Daniil Medvedev versus Joao Sousa, Diego Schwartman playing Kyle Edmund, Philipp Kohlschreiber dueling with Thanasi Kokkinakis, and Jo-Willie Tsonga against Taylor Fritz. Additionally, there are some great names in the Qualies, and the seven who qualify will be placed in the main draw to play either Radu Albot, Martin Klizan, David Goffin, Andreas Seppi, Fabio Fognini, Gilles Simon or FA2. So there will be more enticing first round encounters to look forward to in addition to those just mentioned.

So the fun begins today and comes to a climax next Sunday as the finals are scheduled for April 21 at 2:30 in the afternoon. Tune in and watch history, whether it’s Rafa winning for the twelth time, Djokavic cashing in for his third title, or a new name to add to the august list of champions. You’ll want to experience it first hand.

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