Top Storylines Surrounding the Stars at the 2014 Monte Carlo Masters

Jeremy Eckstein@!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistApril 14, 2014

Top Storylines Surrounding the Stars at the 2014 Monte Carlo Masters

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    The clay-court season is here and Monte Carlo has already reaped the hype of Rafael Nadal vs. Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer's wild-card inclusion.

    There were also a few other tennis stories to recap, including double duty from Fernando Verdasco at Houston's U.S. Men's Clay Court Championship.

    Of course most of the talk is centered upon several big matches ahead at Monte Carlo. Which players could pose the most difficulties for the top stars? Can Stanislas Wawrinka rebound from a recent bumpy stretch of tennis?

    We even calculated Roger Federer's odds of winning the Monte Carlo title.

    And there is a Monte Carlo championship prediction slide at the end. Will Djokovic defend his title or will Nadal reclaim his throne?

    This is a special Monte Carlo preview edition of the "Winners and Losers" of tennis. This is where we examine the unusual, disappointing and triumphant happenings in tennis.

Winner: Another 2nd-Serve Idea

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    Maybe it's appropriate that The Guardian pitched its idea to abolish the second serve from tennis right as the clay season kicks off. Clay is where it often appears that the players get two second serves, and matches are long enough, right? Here is the tenor of its thesis and argument:

    The second serve rewards failure, wastes time and means we all have to spend far longer watching Rafael Nadal towelling his face, fiddling with his headband and pulling his shorts out from between his butt-cheeks than is necessary. The time has come to rid tennis of this superfluous second-serve menace.

    It's an intriguing idea that is worth at least a discussion, but it would be quite a significant departure from the history of tennis. Changing the game so radically would be like a third era in tennis, as if we could no longer measure the records and make appropriate enough comparisons to stars of the past. For instance:

    • Would it altogether eliminate the serve as a weapon?
    • Would serve-and-volley style ever matter again?
    • Would returners dominate so thoroughly that service holds become harder than service breaks?

    Of course there are other concerns, not the least of what it meant to watch a legend like Pete Sampras thrive with his second serve, whereas this has often been one of Andy Murray's great difficulties. And would this make serving more or less predictable?

    Would this be entertaining for fans? The penalty for a missed serve would be a lost point and a quick trip to the other side of the court. Would there be too many conservative "serve lobs"?

    Maybe The Guardian is on to something, and we certainly encourage new tennis ideas for the sport's progression and optimum skill display, but it's hard to get on board.

    On the other hand, if servers become too dominant, a more simple tweak could be to shrink the service box by having to serve completely inside the lines. Imagine a Hawkeye replay in which the crowd moans when the replay shows that the serve is a fault because it touched the line inside the box. After the point begins, hitting the sidelines and baseline becomes acceptable again.

    Maybe we need to toss up a third idea.

Loser: No. 1 Seeds Go Down Quickly

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    If John Isner's performance at the U.S. Men's Clay Court Championships is any indication of the European clay-court season, it will be as quick as an ace but with the disappointment of a double-fault.

    Isner was the tournament's No. 1 seed and defending champion. He is ranked No. 9 in the world and is removed from his semifinalist appearance at Indian Wells. But he lost in three sets to the journeyman (and very exciting athlete) Dustin Brown, and he split the two tiebreakers in the final sets.

    Isner was so disgusted, according to USA Today, that he told a tournament official it was a "pathetic performance - I'm sorry you had to see that."

    Not to be outdone, fellow big-server Kevin Anderson was also ousted in the second round of the Grand Prix Hassan II, falling 6-4, 6-4 to Victor Hanescu. Anderson is ranked No. 19 in the world.

    The timing is never good to lose early, but both players are staring at a long clay-court season where their big serves will likely have less impact than usual. Isner will not be playing at Monte Carlo, but Anderson will open up against Gael Monfils, who is coming off a gimpy ankle.

    One more thing they now have in common: Isner and Anderson will be sharing this week's Burnt Bagel award.

Winner: Fernando Verdasco

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    Houston, we have a winner. Props to Fernando Verdasco for a spectacular weekend of grinding out two finals appearances. On Saturday, he and partner David Marrero fell 11-9 in the decisive Match Tiebreaker. On Sunday, Verdasco rebounded with the singles title over clay-courter Nicolas Almagro. He expressed satisfaction to ATP World Tour:

    I think the key was my mentality during the week. I kept going every point no matter how tired or how good I was feeling. Didn’t finish perfect since we lost yesterday the doubles final when we were close to win, but it was great that I’m able to win the singles title.

    Verdasco has long been known for his powerful left-handed forehand. On the days he is clicking, he is tough to beat, especially on clay. Though he has battled injuries and inconsistencies the past few years, he has also turned in fine matches. He rode to the quarterfinals at 2013 Wimbledon, winning the first two sets from eventual winner Andy Murray.

    The hard part will be grabbing his overnight bag and jetting off to Monte Carlo for a very tough first-rounder versus Marin Cilic. If he survives that, he will have a well-rested Stanislas Wawrinka waiting to pounce.

    Life on the ATP tour can be a grind, but Verdasco has a trophy and this week's Golden Breadstick award.

Loser: Agnieszka Radwanska

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    It was a disappointing homecoming for Agnieszka Radwanska as she fell to Alize Cornet in the semifinals at Katowice in her native Poland. It's particularly odd that she won the first set 6-0 before getting blitzed 2-6 in the second set, and then unraveling after a 4-0 lead in the third set.

    What's wrong with the world's No. 3 player?

    One minute she can be in complete control, using her tennis intelligence and execution to great effect. She's like a great baseball pitcher that relies on control and pitch variety but lacks a fastball. When things go well, it looks ingenious. When the control is off, she can get battered around the yard.

    Fortunately for Radwanska, the other top women have their inconsistencies and injuries. They are contenders one week, but bystanders early the next week. It hasn't been easy for anyone.

    But does Radwanska have the weapons to put it together and win a Grand Slam title? Until she proves otherwise, her history shows that in seven consecutive matches, someone is sure to overpower her. Is she the WTA version of David Ferrer?

    So Radwanska will keep plugging away, hoping to break through when the stars align. At least she does not appear to be content with being an also-ran. This is our not-so-subtle reminder that it would not be wise for her to pal around with Caroline Wozniacki. If we spot a pink hairdo on Radwanska, then it will be time to sound the alarm.

Winner: Federer's Wild Card and Probablity for the Title

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    Monte Carlo was the big winner this week, cashing in with the wild-card acceptance from Roger Federer. It's never a loss to add the world's most popular tennis player, especially when it's been three years since he last competed here. Maybe the tournament should follow Gstaad and gift him with livestock.

    Federer also received a solid draw, but it does pose a few dangerous possibilities:

    • Second-round opponent could be big-serving Ivo Karlovic or Radek Stepanek. Federer usually handles the big servers well, but Stepanek's best aggressive tennis is capable of troubling top players. Federer should get through fine.
    • Talented but mercurial Jerzy Janowicz could be waiting in the third round. The big Pole has battled injuries and a tough stretch of disappointing results.
    • Jo-Wilfried Tsonga could be a quarterfinals opponent, but he has played poorly the past several months. The most dangerous possibility could be having to face clay-court specialist Fabio Fognini in the quarterfinals. Fognini is one of the most prolific winners on this surface and very tough when playing well.

    But it's still a good bet that Federer can pick up the 360 semifinal points and set up a clash with Novak Djokovic. Let's do a quick mock calculation to realistically think about Federer's odds of winning Monte Carlo:

    • Say that it's a 75 percent possibility that Federer gets to the semifinals.
    • If we assign a 90 percent probability that Djokovic will be his semifinal opponent, and we give 33 percent chance for Federer to defeat Djokovic, it's 25 percent likely he gets to the final. 
    • In the event that Djokovic gets upset before the semis (10 percent), we will give Federer 80 percent probability that he defeats whoever else is in the semifinals. This 60 percent likelihood of appearing in the finals only gets 10 percent of the weight.
    • So, 25 percent chance (at 90 percent weight) and 60 percent (at 10 percent weight) means that Federer has about 28.5 percent chance of getting to the final.
    • Defeating Rafael Nadal head-to-head at Monte Carlo is perhaps 10 percent, which could be too generous. So having to go through the Djokovic and Nadal scenarios and winning Monte Carlo could be about 2.85 percent.
    • If we again assume that Federer has 10 percent chance of facing someone other than Nadal in the final, and we give Federer 80 percent odds over another opponent (but only 10 percent weight to the equation), it means that Federer has a total probability of 4.85 percent or nearly one in 20 odds of winning Monte Carlo.

    Of course this sabermetrics formula can be manipulated depending on the odds that we assign, and we can change this round by round.

Loser: Stanislas Wawrinka's Draw

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    It's not getting any easier for Stanislas Wawrinka. The Swiss Ironman has struggled to be at his best the past several weeks, and he will now have to make a run through the toughest quarter at Monte Carlo.

    His second-round match will be either Marin Cilic or Fernando Verdasco. Both pose problems. The former has been playing very well in 2014, and the latter is a clay-court talent who can be powerfully good on the right day.

    Even his third-round possibility of erratic clay-courter Nicolas Almagro could be dangerous.

    From there, Wawrinka might get big-serving Milos Raonic or the improving Federico Delbonis, a lefty who can play with a lot of firepower on clay. The wily Tommy Robredo is another clay-courter who could get to the semifinals.

    Then there would be semifinalist and eight-time champion Rafael Nadal on clay. It's probably better that he get this "revenge match" out of the way now. If it doesn't happen until the French Open, it might not be pretty.

    But Wawrinka likes the clay and just might relax and play with blue-collared abandon. He's going to need everything against Nadal on this surface, if he makes it that far.

Winner: Alexandr Dolgopolov

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    The best matchup of the first round was hardly a match. Alexandr Dolgopolov took his rising momentum and dealt a swift and sound exit to Ernests Gulbis, 6-2, 6-4 in 82 minutes.

    So much for Gulbis' rise following the Australian Open. The tempestuous Latvian served up seven double faults and consistently faced pressure with a weak second serve.

    Dolgopolov cashed in by winning 24 of 37 second-serve returns and converted on four of 11 breakpoints, according to ATP World Tour Results.

    The best part of watching Dolgopolov's flashy aggressiveness is seeing him perform on clay. His lithe, athletic frame combines traditional clay-court smoothness while looking to hammer his opponent with marvelous angles and pressure. But despite this optimism, he has only been mediocre on clay with a career 37-40 record.

    Looking ahead, Dolgopolov could be facing Tomas Berdych in the fourth round, and he might be the better player to win the match if he plays like he did in the Gulbis match. (He will need to get his first serve in more often, because 44 percent is ugly.) If so, perhaps he could be a formidable challenge to Djokovic in the quarterfinals.

    Meanwhile, Dolgopolov is looking to edge into the Top 20 and move his seeding up for tournaments leading into the French Open. But there's a lot of clay to slide on until then.

Loser: Grigor Dimitrov or David Ferrer?

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    Either Grigor Dimitrov or David Ferrer will be out before the quarterfinals and facing more questions. They each must answer the bell for different reasons.

    Ferrer has battled a thigh strain in his left leg since his loss at Acapulco, Mexico in February. Meanwhile, his world ranking has fallen to No. 6, and he has many points to defend through the French Open. He cannot afford early exits if he wishes to keep pace with the top players. The big picture is that he needs to prove he has regained his energizer form.

    Dimitrov defeated Ferrer at Stockholm last October. He has since been a quarterfinalist at the Australian Open and winner of Acapulco. But inconsistent results and losses to Ernests Gulbis have set him back. If he wants to move forward, a victory over Ferrer would set him up for another battle versus Rafael Nadal. Last year, Dimitrov pushed Nadal until late in the third set.

    So there is a lot on the line for these two capable but questionable players.

    Who will emerge from the quarterfinals?

Winner: Novak Djokovic

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    He has already captured Monte Carlo's title after being the first player since 2004 to upend Rafael Nadal. For many players, that could be a lifetime achievement. For Djokovic, it must be forgotten if he wishes for a repeat championship.

    Djokovic has a fairly routine draw to the quarterfinals. He will be heavily favored to knock off Tomas Berdych or Alexandr Dolgopolov at that stage, if most things go to form.

    But he probably would have rather avoided Roger Federer in the semifinals. Not that Stanislas Wawrinka would be an easier trade, considering their recent battles, but Federer will always have the crowd and plenty of variety to slice and move the Serbian in several directions. It's the kind of match that could soften up Djokovic for a revenge-driven Nadal in the final.

    Djokovic's track record suggests that he will be as hungry as ever to win another Monte Carlo title, which would be five straight Masters 1000 championships, not including London's 2013 WTF trophy. When he gets on a streak, he can seem unstoppable.

    Which is why he needs to continue his recent mastery of Nadal. Now is not the time to let up on the King of Clay, else his momentum race to the other side of the net.

    There's a great chance the Nadal match will happen, but there are a lot of tough competitors in the way.

Prediction: Rafael Nadal to Win Monte Carlo

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    With most of the talk centered upon Novak Djokovic's recent success, it's not likely Rafael Nadal will cash in his chips for anything less than a ninth Monte Carlo title in 10 years. First, some of the hurdles he must clear:

    • Second round: Clay-courter Gilles Simon is the kind of player Nadal typically chews up. He does not possess the power to worry the King of Clay. Two years ago, they met in the Monte Carlo semifinals and Nadal cruised 6-3, 6-4. Only self-immolation could stop Nadal.
    • Third round: Andreas Seppi is similar to Simon, but Mikhail Youzhny or Pablo Andujar could pose problems if Nadal is struggling. Youzhny fears no one, has a wonderful backhand and could seize the moment. Andujar came so close at Brazil. Nadal will probably cruise.
    • Quarterfinals: Dimitrov is more dangerous than Ferrer, who last defeated Nadal on clay in 2004. Last year, Dimitrov pushed Nadal until late in the third set. Expect Nadal to be more crisp this time and to defeat either opponent.
    • Semifinals: Nadal will likely welcome a match versus Stanislas Wawrinka. The Spaniard has been good at returning tough losses. Wawrinka has not been playing as well, so may not get to the semifinals, but if he does, he will need to play even better on clay.

    Why expect anything less than a final versus Djokovic? We will get a more accurate sense of how the two are playing by the coming weekend, but there are still things that favor Nadal in reclaiming his crown.

    1. He knows that Monte Carlo and the French Open are his two best tournaments. Confidence and desire should have him at his best.
    2. The pressure of defending eight consecutive titles is now over. There's also a chance that Djokovic might already feel fulfilled with his 2013 title, but Nadal should not count on that.
    3. His movement on clay is superior to Djokovic's. This not only gives him the time he needs on defense, but sets up his more methodical forehand windup. As long as he can hit with depth and variety, he will win.

    Prediction: Nadal will play his best tennis of 2014 and hold up another Monte Carlo trophy.