World #1 and the undisputed king of clay, Rafael Nadal, will look to win his third Monte Carlo Masters crown in a row and eleventh overall when he takes on Kei Nishikori in Sunday’s final. Despite the event being only Nadal’s second of the season, the Spaniard has been in fearsome form so far in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. Nishikori, who missed much of 2017 through injury, has faced a battle this year to find form and fitness, but looks to have found both in Monte Carlo. Who will lift the title?
The pair have met eleven times so far over the course of their careers, with Nadal leading the head-to-head nine matches to two. They first clashed a decade ago at Queen’s Club, with Nadal winning 6-4 3-6 6-3 in the round of 16 and going onto lift the title. Nadal won again in the first round at Wimbledon in 2010, and again went on to win the title. The Spaniard also won their next four encounters, including at Roland Garros in 2013 and at Melbourne Park in 2014.
History then, was not on Nishikori’s side when he took to the court against Nadal in 2014 in the final of the Madrid Open. But until a back injury derailed his challenge halfway through the second set, eventually forcing him to retire in the decider, Nishikori had been dominant. A victory for the Japanese didn’t seem far away, and he got it in 2015 in Canada 6-2 6-4. There were back-to-back wins for Nadal in 2016, including in the Barcelona final, before Nishikori denied Nadal in the Bronze Medal Match in Rio.
Path to the final
Nadal began his Monte Carlo campaign in the second round after receiving a first round bye. That saw him take on Aljaz Bedene and the Spaniard brushed aside the Slovenian’s challenge, winning 6-1 6-3. Karen Khachanov, the big-hitting young Russian, was scarcely more competitive, losing 3-6 2-6 to the illustrious Spaniard. Thiem, widely regarded as the second best clay courter in the game, was expected to provide a tougher challenge but was hammered 6-0 6-2. Dimitrov, not at his best on the clay, was surprisingly competitive, but unsurprisingly defeated 6-4 6-1 in the semifinals.
Nishikori, unseeded after his long injury layoff, began in the first round against 12th seed Tomas Berdych. The pair, once top ten rivals, put on a fine display, and Nishikori finished strongly to recover from dropping the first set to win in three, 4-6 6-2 6-1. Nishikori then defeated the unorthodox Russian Daniil Medvedev 7-5 6-2 to record his only straight sets win of the week. He advanced to the quarterfinals after a seesawing match with Andreas Seppi that the Japanese won 6-0 2-6 6-3.
That set up a clash with the second seeded Marin Cilic. Nishikori made the better start, winning the first set 6-4, and served for it in the second. But he was unable to close the match out, and Cilic forced a decider by winning the ensuing tiebreak. But Nishikori hung tough to close out a 6-4 6-7 6-3 win. Standing between him and the final, was two-time Masters champion Alexander Zverev. But it was Nishikori who won through after another three-set battle 6-3 3-6 6-4.
How do they match up?
Nadal has been at his dominant best so far in Monte Carlo. The Spaniard’s ball striking, particularly in the early rounds, was terrific and none of Bedene, Khachanov or Thiem could cope with Nadal’s aggressive hitting. He was able to spread the court well throughout those matches, with Thiem’s movement out to his forehand side exposed by Nadal’s cross court backhand. Nadal was also able to rely on his trusted pattern of using his forehand cross court to break down an opponent’s backhand.
He may find that a tougher challenge when confronted with the two-hander of Nishikori. There are few players who defend better from that corner than the 27-year-old. Even when stretched out wide, Nishikori is comfortable playing open stance backhands to get himself back into the point. Indeed, from the back of the court, Nishikori is typically rock solid. What can be exploited is his weak serving, particularly second deliveries. Nishikori struggles to generate much pace or spin with his second serve, which leaves him vulnerable to aggressive returners.
Nishikori and Nadal have met three times on clay, and Nadal has won three times, dropping only one set. Whilst the Spaniard was lucky to win in Madrid, he fully deserved his victories at Roland Garros in 2013 and in Barcelona two years ago. Nadal should also be fresh, having come through his half of the draw with consummate ease. Nishikori, meanwhile, has battled impressively but may well be feeling the effects of his hard work now. And facing Nadal is hard enough when rested. The world #1 to win in straight sets.
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