40. A Day at the Monte Carlo Masters

I was fortunate enough to get down to Monaco on Thursday for round 3 day at the Monte Carlo Masters 1000 event. It’s a stunning location, set against the mountains on one side, the sea on the other, and a whole pile of cash in the middle. In that context how could you not take in some tennis?

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Dimitrov d. Wawrinka 6-1 6-2

You would think from the scoreline above that the first match of the day saw an on-song Dimitrov bring a complete game of power and touch and in so doing reinforce his credentials as a potential future number 1. Unfortunately for those watching, this match offered little quality – albeit Dimitrov hit the ball a good deal more crisply – and was really all about the Swiss number 2. Unforced errors emanated mostly from Wawrinka’s racquet ; a staggering 41 UEs in just 15 games – you only need 48 points to win a best-of-3 set match. Only occasionally did he light up Court Central – a good job they started at 10h30 local time before many of the patrons were in seat. Even the staggered arrival court side of Benoit Paire, Wawrinka’s best mate on tour, and Severin Luthi, Swiss Davis Cup captain, did little to halt the slide (at least not in this match; Paire and Wawrinka would later win their doubles match against veterans Nestor and Paes). Difficult to know where this performance came from from Wawrinka and equally it’s unclear how well Dimitrov is playing. Regardless, coming into this tournament with few wins this year, the Bulgarian will take confidence from this week especially as the draw has now at least superficially opened up, more of which below…

Monfils d. Federer 6-4 7-6

This was an upset no question: Monfils’s previous win on clay against Federer in the Davis Cup Final last year came when the Swiss number 1 was still recovering from injury. In reality though, to say that Federer’s defeat has opened up the draw for Monfils-Dimitrov-Berdych-Raonic (one of who will be a finalist this week) is to deny an essential truth – that the draw was already open for them with Djokovic, Nadal and Ferrer drawn in the opposite half. Federer does not appear to be quite the force on clay he once was. It is also true to say that Monfils has found a more regular measure of sustained excellence in the last 12 months.

And Monfils played exceptionally well. Powerful particularly off the backhand wing, Monfils kept Federer’s backhand on the defensive and his forehand less frequently deployed. This was a mature performance, that controlled how his Swiss opponent could play. On this form Monfils could well make the final.

Federer draws support around the world where he plays but the crowd that was probably split 50-50 at the start moved firmly into the Federer camp in the second set. Monte Carlo is a principality not a republic forged by revolution like its neighbour and umbrage at the fall of the crowd favourite today was only mitigated by his conqueror being French. When Monfils held serve it was greeted with a collective sigh from the crowd and it was as much as he could do to win the more exciting points to keep the imperial Roman mob at bay. Bordering on the Monte Carlo Coliseum Club than Country Club at times.

However, in a match played in otherwise overcast conditions, the sun came out on match point: even the sun didn’t want to be on the wrong side of history.

Nadal d. Isner 7-6 4-6 6-3

If the fall of one favourite on Thursday was tolerated by the crowd, the threat to Nadal, 8 times the champion in Monte Carlo, that emerged in the course of his match was not. Ironically, a sparse crowd for the start of Nadal’s match was enough to inspire a polyglot rhyming couplet: No one here for the King of Clay / They are all at dejeuner. But as the stadium refilled, the crowd slowly became aware that casually ignoring and patronising Nadal’s opponent would be a dangerous strategy. For not only did Isner serve predictably well to keep him on level terms with Nadal, he also brought a gameplan that nearly won him the match. Patient with his backhand cross court (which had some pop), unloading on the forehand and with some decent dropshot touches sprinkled in, this was a performance that arguably got Isner to within a point of beating Nadal.

In some ways we should not be surprised: Isner has troubled Nadal on clay before (Roland Garros 2011 where Isner led by two sets before losing) but this time what impressed was not so much the scoreline but the manner in which Isner went about his task, playing an all court brand of tennis that should set him up well for the remainder of the clay court swing. He held 2 set points in the tie breaker, the second on his own serve, and had done enough to deserve the set as much as Nadal, something that was certainly the case in the second set.

How influential has new coach Justin Gimelstob been? Difficult to quantify and certainly this year has seen both ups and downs from the American number one (think Davis Cup and Miami within the same four weeks). But Gimelstob’s ongoing work commenting on The Tennis Channel – including yesterday’s match – is odd when you feel his presence in Europe would do his charge some good.

Tennis TV and journalist Carole Bouchard both commented on Nadal’s position returning Isner’s serve. From where we were, I reckon it must have been in France or Italy – certainly couldn’t be seen here…

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No time to watch the world number 1, Novak Djokovic: dinner and the casino called.  Monte Carlo is a great place to watch some tennis – for the scenery, the theatre and the quality. Food on site is not up to much but overall I recommend it to you all.

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