2014 Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters champion Stan Wawrinka takes on talented clay-courter Pablo Cuevas for a place in the quarterfinals on Thursday.
With all of Stan Wawrinka’s Grand Slam success – he is one Wimbledon win away from a career Grand Slam and has the same number of major titles as Andy Murray – there’s one real factor that separates him from the ‘Big Four’ and that’s success at Masters 1000 Series level. Novak Djokovic (30), Rafael Nadal (28) and Roger Federer (26) have won the most Masters titles, and Murray has a highly respectable 14 to his name (plus seven additional runner-up finishes).
Wawrinka, on the other hand, has won just one Masters 1000 Series title and reached three additional finals – most recently at Indian Wells, where he lost to Roger Federer – and his record at this level is the biggest factor separating him from the ‘Big Four’.
Since winning the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters in 2014, a win which looks even better in retrospect when you consider that he beat Marin Cilic, Milos Raonic and Roger Federer, Wawrinka hasn’t played too well at the Monte Carlo Country Club, losing to Grigor Dimitrov in the third round in 2015 and suffering an unimpressive 1-6, 4-6 defeat to Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals in 2016.
Winning despite not playing especially well has really been the keynote of Wawrinka’s 2017 season so far: He was a semifinalist at the Australian Open, where the only seeds he faced on the way to the final four were Viktor Troicki and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and stretched Federer to five sets despite playing far from his best tennis. He lost to world no. 77 Damir Dzumhur in Dubai, but made the aforementioned run to the final at Indian Wells – a tournament where he’s never really played well in the past – with wins over Dominic Thiem, Philipp Kohlschreiber and Pablo Carreno Busta, losing to Federer in straight sets. Wawrinka said he had little left to give in the final, which is slightly odd, and went on to lose in the fourth round of the Miami Masters to Alexander Zverev before taking a break ahead of the beginning of the clay-court season.
Wawrinka made little impression during the three Masters 1000 Series events of the clay-court season in 2016 – he lost to Nadal in the quarterfinals in Monte Carlo, Nick Kyrgios in his opening match in Madrid and Juan Monaco in the third round in Rome – so he doesn’t have too much to defend in terms of points until Geneva and the French Open, and he made a decent impression on his return to action at the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters on Wednesday when he beat Jiri Vesely. Vesely, the powerful Czech who had shocked Novak Djokovic in Monte Carlo last year and was a semifinalist at the Grand Prix Hassan II in Marrakech last week, did take the second set but was thoroughly dominated in the first and third as Wawrinka secured a 6-2, 4-6, 6-2 victory, with Vesely bringing the match to an ignominious end with a double fault.
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Next up for Wawrinka is an extremely experienced clay-court player in world no. 27 Pablo Cuevas. The Uruguayan booked his place in the round of 16 at the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters with a 6-3, 6-0 win over Viktor Troicki and a 6-3, 6-3 win over Joao Sousa.
Cuevas was ranked in the top 20 last August and has won six clay-court titles – all of them coming in the last four seasons, after he missed almost two years on tour due to injury. Cuevas was absent from competition from May 2011 until April 2013 but made an absolutely stellar comeback, winning five Challenger titles in 2013-14 as well as his first two ATP World Tour titles on clay in Umag and Bastad in 2014 to end that year ranked world no. 32. Cuevas went on to win Sao Paulo and finish runner-up in Istanbul in 2015 and in 2016 he beat Rafael Nadal on his way to his biggest title yet, the 500-level Rio Open crown, going on to win Sao Paulo the next week and finishing runner-up in Nottingham and Hamburg.
Cuevas lost four of his first five matches in 2017, including defeats in the first rounds of clay-court events in Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro, but won his third Sao Paulo title in February before moving on to Indian Wells, where he made the first Masters 1000 Series quarterfinal of his career with wins over Fabio Fognini and 11th seed David Goffin before losing to Pablo Carreno Busta. He lost in the first round of the Miami Masters to Benoit Paire, but has scored two extremely solid wins over Troicki and Sousa to reach the third round of the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters for the first time.
Wawrinka and Cuevas have never played, and it could be an extremely interesting match between the former French Open champion and the Uruguayan. Cuevas doesn’t have the heavy artillery that Wawrinka brings to the court, but if the Swiss player’s focus wavers, Cuevas can make life very difficult for him – we are talking about a man who has beaten Nadal on clay, after all. This will be a fine test for Wawrinka as the 2014 Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters champion bids for a place in the 2017 quarterfinals.
Wawrinka vs Cuevas is scheduled on Court Rainer III on Thursday at 12.30pm local/11.30am BST