...but Fed's decision to accept a last-minute wildcard has thrown the draw wide open...
Last call for flights to Monte Carlo – ah, Mr Federer, you’re just in time….
Whatever his motives for taking that last-gasp invitation to Monte Carlo – rankings concerns, perhaps? Playing out of his recent slump? Or a revised plan to land that elusive Roland Garros title? – Roger Federer has certainly made the first clay-court Masters 1000 tournament even more intriguing.
The Swiss has three runner-up plates back home in Basel already, so rightly assumes the role of No.2 seed – behind the one man that seems to stand in the way of all he holds dear, four-time champion Rafael Nadal. Sure, there may be nine of the world’s top ten in town, but the Spaniard remains the man to beat on the terre battue.
The world No.1 is bidding for a record fifth straight title in the principality, and will start his defence against either Igor Kunitsyn or Juan Ignacio Chela in round two.
With Federer in the other half of the draw, little has changed for Nadal – which is more than can be said for Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.
The Scot has the Serb’s No.3 world ranking firmly in his sights, and the 21-year-olds would have been drawn to face one another in the semi-finals before Federer’s change of heart.
Now Djokovic, in Fed’s half of the draw, awaits Julien Benneteau or a qualifier in round two, while Murray, working with clay-court specialist Alex Corretja once again this year, will begin his run to a likely semi-final showdown with Nadal against Victor Hanescu or another qualifier.
Of course, to do that, Murray will have to progress beyond the last eight of the clay-court tournament – something he didn’t manage in three attempts last season. That may sound ominous, but it also means that he has fewer rankings points to protect, while Djokovic has plenty.
The Serb has to defend over five times as many points as Murray until the French Open in June,
and although none of those points are at stake in Monaco as the tournament is no longer a mandatory event, they’ll soon be piling the pressure on.
Djokovic will have to defend 1000 points at the Rome Masters at the end of April after winning there last year.
For all the talk of the big four, the dark horses scattered between the big four should not be discounted – with two names likely to play a key role in proceedings.
Juan Martin del Potro is debuting at the event this year and will be keen to set up a quarter-final shot at Nadal after beating the Spaniard in Miami. The Argentine will most likely have to see off Gael Monfils in what could prove to be an explosive third round meeting.
One man undoubtedly entering the clay court season with renewed optimism is Fernando Verdasco. The Spaniard has not won a match in Monte Carlo in four attempts, but since sealing the Davis Cup last November, Verdasco is a different animal on court and cannot be taken lightly. He will face Gulbis or Kohlschreiber in round two.