The European clay court season got well and truly underway in fine style at the scenic Monte Carlo Country Club in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin last week. The focus of the tennis world now shifts to Barcelona where a star-studded field take to the court at the only ATP 500 series event of the clay court swing. That will be followed by the second of the clay court Masters, the Madrid Open. But for now, a fine week of tennis awaits in Catalonia.
Ten-time former and current defending champion, Rafael Nadal leads the field in Barcelona. The Spaniard has been phenomenally successful at the Barcelona Open and as a result the stadium court at the Real Club de Tenis Barcelona bears his name. But Nadal will be looking to continue his good form rather than dwell on past glories. Just as he did in Monte Carlo, he will need to win the title to stay atop the rankings, and will hope that just as he did in Monte Carlo, he is able to do so.
Joining Nadal in Barcelona is 12-time Grand Slam champion and former world #1 Novak Djokovic. The Serbian hasn’t played in Barcelona since 2006, but accepted a wild card as he looks to rebuild his form and fitness after a lengthy struggle with an elbow injury. Djokovic says he is now playing pain free, and was able to win two matches in Monte Carlo before Thiem stopped him in three sets. It’s still surely too soon for him to be considered a credible title threat, but this could be another good week along the road to recovery.
Kei Nishikori has had his own injury struggles of late and, like Djokovic, missed most of the second half of last season. But Nishikori looked back to something approaching his best in Monte Carlo, battling to his first Masters final since 2016 in Toronto (lost to Djokovic) and fourth overall. There Nadal had too much for him, but it was an excellent week for the Japanese none-the-less. He will bring good memories of the back-to-back titles he won in 2014 and 2015, and looks more likely than anyone not named Nadal to be lifting the title at the end of the week.
Grigor Dimitrov only managed four wins on clay last season, but has already racked up three this year after making a run to the last four at the Monte Carlo Masters. Seeded second, he finds himself in a favourable part of the draw, although Andrey Rublev, who defeated him in New York last year, is a potential third round opponent. Third seeded Dominic Thiem reached the final in Barcelona last year, and is always a danger on the clay, though he did take a bruising loss to Nadal last week.
David Goffin and Pablo Carreno Busta are the fourth and fifth seeds respectively. Both solid baseliners with a commendable work ethic, they may struggle against the biggest names in the sport, but are also well-capable of springing an upset on their day. All the more so on the clay, which suits their counter-punching styles well. Seventh seed Diego Schwartzman is also usually a threat on the clay, but will be looking to avoid being caught cold as he was in his defeat to Gasquet last week.
First round matches to watch
Benoit Paire rarely fails to entertain, but the mercurial Frenchman will have his work cut out for him when he takes on Nicolas Jarry of Chile in the first round. Jarry will be delighted to be back on the clay after a terrific Latin American swing in which he reached the semifinals in Rio and the final in Sao Paulo. How his traditional clay court game matches up against the aggressive and unpredictable style of Paire will be fascinating, and it makes this the pick of the first round clashes.
Martin Klizan is another in the Barcelona field on the comeback trail. The Slovakian qualified into the main draw this week and will face off against Federico Delbonis for a place in the second round. Both men are prone to taking big cuts at the ball, although it is Klizan who is blessed with more power off the ground. But Delbonis is the more consistent of the two, and whoever triumphs in this clash of attacking and defensive styles, the crowd should be entertained.
To say Rafael Nadal is the favourite coming into this week is almost an understatement such was his dominance at the Monte Carlo Country Club. The Spaniard destroyed everyone that had the audacity to take to the court against him, and it's hard to see anyone being able to stop him this week either. Though his quarter of the draw is tough, with both Djokovic and Nishikori potential opponents, the world #1 should have more than enough to come through and keep hold of his crown for another week at least.
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