Tennis - Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal talk positive but both face questions at Monte-Carlo Masters
Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal make their returns after two months out at the Monte-Carlo Masters, but both face questions as they look to get back to winning ways. Djokovic has not played since winning the Australian Open and has a tricky draw while Nadal was battling a back injury earlier this year and has slipped down to world No 3.
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The clay season kicks up a gear this week on the ATP Tour with the start of the Monte-Carlo Masters. The tournament in the south of France is the second Masters event of 2021 and the first time that world No 1 Novak Djokovic and world No 3 Rafael Nadal will be playing since the Australian Open in February.
Both were scheduled to play after Melbourne but instead took time off to recover from injuries, meaning when they take the court this week it will be the first time they have both played competitively in two months. Djokovic and Nadal are both very familiar with Monte Carlo - Djokovic lives nearby and Nadal has won the tournament 11 times - but what sort of shape will they be in this week after so long away from the court?
Djokovic, who is 9-0 for the season after winning the Australian Open, says he feels "physically prepared" after recovering from a muscle injury and is not worried about a lack of match practice.
"I have had some periods in my career where I didn't play a tournament for maybe a couple months, then came back,” he said.
"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. 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."
The world No 1 could be put to the test quickly as he faces either Miami Open finalist Jannik Sinner or 2017 Monte-Carlo runner-up Albert Ramos-Vinolas in his opening match. He might also be busy off the court in his role with the Professional Tennis Players’ Association.
While it was somewhat surprising that Djokovic didn’t play again after winning the Australian Open, it was not a shock to see Nadal take time off ahead of his most important part of the season. The 34-year-old has dominated on clay over the last 15 years and is aiming for a 12th title in Monte Carlo before setting his sights on winning Roland-Garros for a 13th time.
But will he still be troubled by the back injury that he sustained in Melbourne? And how fresh will he be after two months away from the tour?
"An important part of the season has arrived for me," he said ahead of his opener against either Federico Delbonis or Adrian Mannarino.
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"I think I did the right work to be ready. I'm happy the way that I am playing, for the moment my body is in good shape. I am confident. I'm practising well these couple of days here in Monaco before the tournament starts. So I feel ready.
"It’s true that I didn’t play much. At the same time, it is true that I had good success in the past without playing much."
For both Nadal and Djokovic the extended break is almost like starting their seasons again. Normally after the Australian Open they would play Indian Wells and Miami before clay; this year they go into Monte Carlo having not played for a longer period than their usual off-season breaks.
Djokovic’s form moving onto clay over the last few years suggests he might find the transition more challenging than Nadal. Since 2015 he’s only made the quarter-finals twice in Monte Carlo while also losing his opening match in 2016, plus he faces a tricky draw with Sinner or Ramos-Vinolas potentially followed by Miami Open champion Hubert Hurkacz or 2019 Monte Carlo runner-up Dusan Lajovic, and then Alexander Zverev in the quarters.
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Nadal lost in the semi-finals to Fabio Fognini last time out in Monte Carlo but had won the previous three editions of the tournament. It would not be a surprise to see him quickly find his best level on clay again despite the lengthy break.
It’s not just Nadal and Djokovic facing questions heading into the tournament. World No 2 Daniil Medvedev is hoping for a strong clay season to keep his position in the rankings and perhaps even threaten Djokovic’s position as world No 1. The problem? The clay.
"Honestly, there's nothing I like on clay," he said with a smile ahead of his opening match against either Filip Krajinovic or Nikoloz Basilashvili. "There's always bad bounces, you're dirty after playing. I really don't enjoy playing on clay."
Medvedev lives and trains in the south of France and reached the semi-finals in Monte Carlo in 2019. But that is his best run at a clay event and he is yet to win a match in four attempts at Roland-Garros as he continues to find adapting to the surface difficult.
"For nine or 10 months, I'm playing like I'm used to. Then I have to change it for two months, still keeping the things that I do well also. You cannot change your game completely."
Medvedev is seeded second for the tournament with Stefanos Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev rounding out the top five seeds.