Djokovic, Nadal return as clay season heats up in Monte Carlo

  • Matt Trollope

The European clay-court swing truly kicks into gear this week when a star-studded field assembles for the ATP Masters 1000 event in Monte Carlo. 

And it is where Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal will attempt to resume their dominance of the sport after months away from the court. 

Although the clay-court season officially got underway last week, those events were predominantly 250-level tournaments. And the women were not even in Europe at all, competing in the United States (Charleston) and Colombia (Bogota). 

This week, eight of the world’s top 10 will gather in Monte Carlo for the biggest clay-court event of 2021 so far.

DRAW: Monte Carlo men's singles

After a Miami Open missing four of the world’s top six and featuring a final between Hubert Hurkacz and Jannik Sinner, Monte Carlo is where we will see what happens when the big names – sans Dominic Thiem and Roger Federer – return to competition. 

Last week, world No.15 Pablo Carreno Busta was the highest-ranked player in action across two ATP clay-court tournaments in Marbella and Cagliari; Carreno Busta was the eventual champion in Marbella, while Lorenzo Sonego claimed the Cagliari crown. 

Notably, 17-year-old wildcard Carlos Alcaraz reached his first ATP semifinal in Marbella, upsetting third seed Casper Ruud along the way.

Monte Carlo Masters

Although Djokovic and Daniil Medvedev are the top two seeds in Monte Carlo, it is third seed Nadal who almost always stars at this time of year. 

The King of Clay, the defending champion at Roland Garros, has won 11 trophies in Monte Carlo and the tournament typically commences his run-up to Paris on the perfect note. 

Having not played since his quarterfinal loss to Stefanos Tsitsipas at the Australian Open, Nadal will open his campaign against either Adrian Mannarino or Federico Delbonis.

Eleven-time champion Rafael Nadal practises in Monte Carlo ahead of the 2021 tournament. (Getty Images)

He has landed in the same half of the draw as Medvedev, who admitted to his distaste for the surface. 

“Honestly, there's nothing I like on clay,” Medvedev smiled. 

“There's always bad bounces, you're dirty after playing. I really don't enjoy playing on clay.

“After what happened two years ago, I know I can play well on this court. Every time I practise on clay, after I play my match, I try to do my best, but it's difficult for me.”

What Medvedev was referring to was his semifinal run in 2019, his second-best tour-level result ever on clay after his Barcelona final that same year. 

Since then, the Russian has lost his last six matches on the dirt.

Djokovic: "I feel physically prepared"

Like Medvedev, Djokovic expressed the frustration that comes with being unable to easily hit clean winners on the surface as one would on a hard court. 

But unlike Medvedev, Djokovic has been extremely successful on clay. 

The 2016 Roland Garros champion has won two Monte Carlo titles – in 2013 and 2015 – and beat Nadal in both of those winning years. 

He arrives at the event undefeated in nine matches this season, but has not played since winning the Australian Open.

“I have had some periods in my career where I didn't play a tournament for maybe a couple months, then came back. I don't think there is anything special I have to do in terms of preparation in order for me to feel my best on the court,” Djokovic said. 

“I've been training quite a lot on clay. Here in Monte-Carlo actually where I reside with the family, it was convenient and feels great. I feel physically prepared.”

Djokovic could face Sinner in round two – if the Italian gets past Albert Ramos-Vinolas – and then Hurkacz in round three; the Miami champion is seeded 13th and faces Thomas Fabbiano on Monday. 

Also in the draw is No.15 seed Fabio Fognini, the defending champion from 2019 (after the 2020 event was cancelled) who is seeded to meet Medvedev in the last 16. 

WTA action

The women, meanwhile, are playing in Charleston for the second straight week after the WTA decided to stage a subsequent 250-level event at the same venue where the long-running 500-level tournament is held.

That was won by Veronika Kudermetova, a surprise champion in a draw containing seven of the world’s top 20 women. 

The 250-level Charleston event does not boast the same strength of field, with top seed Ons Jabeur the only top-50 ranked player in the draw.

However, last week’s WTA Bogota champion, Maria Camelia Osorio Serrano has entered the event, drawing second seed Magda Linette as her first-round opponent. 

The women will commence their European clay-court swing next week with events in Stuttgart and Istanbul.