Rafael Nadal begins his quest for a tenth Monte Carlo crown on Wednesday when he takes on Great Britain’s Kyle Edmund in the second round.
Nadal is still without a title this season, but he enjoyed a hugely impressive three months on the hard courts, contesting finals at the Australian Open, Indian Wells and Miami. It was all the more impressive given his struggles last season, when he painfully pulled out of Roland Garros after the second round, missed Wimbledon altogether and ultimately brought an early end to his season after losing his opening match at the Shanghai Masters.
Nadal actually made an encouraging start to the European clay season last year, winning in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, and beating top ten players Stan Wawrinka, Dominic Thiem, Andy Murray and Kei Nishikori in the process, but a semi-final loss to Andy Murray in Madrid and a quarter final defeat to Novak Djokovic in Rome re-affirmed fears that his stranglehold on clay was slowly loosening, a theory that was further fuelled by his withdrawal from Roland Garros because of a wrist injury.
Nadal was untouchable in Monte Carlo for eight years, but he then went three seasons without the title before claiming a ninth crown in 2016. Can he set up another dynasty in the principality, or is his grip on the title well and truly softened?
On the evidence of his performances on hard courts at the start of the season (and the performances of his main rivals), the Spaniard looks set to return to his dominant best on clay this year. In his first official tournament on his return from injury, Nadal reached the quarter finals of the Brisbane International, losing to Milos Raonic- a match he probably should have won; he then had that amazing run to the Australian Open final before losing to Roger Federer, again, a match he could have won having led by a break in the final set. Nadal continued his excellent start to the year by bulldozing his way to the final in Acapulco, where he was a clear favourite to beat Sam Querrey, but his final woes struck again in the Mexican city, as Querrey recorded his first ever victory over Nadal.
The 14-time Grand Slam champion then suffered more misery at the hands of Federer on the North American hard courts, beaten twice, and very comprehensively by his great rival- first in the fourth round of the BNP Paribas Open, and second in the final of the Miami Open.
Safe to say, if not for the brilliance of Federer, Nadal would probably have gotten a couple of titles already this year.
Federer has said he will skip most of the clay court season, paving the way for the Spaniard to once again grab the major honours on his favourite clay.
His first assignment is to overcome Great Britain’s Kyle Edmund.
Edmund was useful on clay last season, as he has been for most of his young career. He won main draw matches in Bucharest, Estoril, and more importantly at Roland Garros, while he also picked up a title at the Rome Challengers. Outside clay, the 22-year-old contested a semi-final in Antwerp, quarter finals of Doha, Queen’s and Beijing, while a fourth round showing at the US Open is also commendable.
Edmund has helped himself to number 45 in the world after a steady, but not eye-catching start to the season. The British number two has reached a couple of quarter finals in Brisbane and Delray Beach, while he also got to the second round of the Australian Open and Indian Wells. Before heading to Monte Carlo, Edmund had some decent early match practice on clay during Great Britain’s Davis Cup tie in France, where he lost rubbers to Lucas Pouille and Jeremy Chardy (the latter being a dead rubber).
After a tight first set against compatriot, Dan Evans in the first round in Monte Carlo, Edmund ran away with the second set, with the 7-5 6-1 victory, setting up a first ever meeting with Rafael Nadal.
Edmund’s big weapon is his forehand, big enough to unnerve anyone in the game, and he will hit a fair few beyond Nadal when he gets his chance to rip, but the greater probability is that Nadal will keep Edmund honest with his tried and trusted formula of attacking the right-hander’s backhand with his heavy topspin forehand.
This will be another chapter in the learning curve for young Edmund, but the king of clay, Nadal should come through comfortably.