Matt Zemek

This presentation of “48 Hours” does not star Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy. It stars Dominic Thiem, Novak Djokovic, Borna Coric, and Rafael Nadal.

The plot seems simple on the surface, but is much more complicated underneath it.

Ostensibly, these four men — in the same quarter of the Monte Carlo draw — are fighting for a spot in the semifinals and the likely (in Nadal’s case, certain) status of favorite to win the tournament. If you peel away the layers of the onion, however, a point of intrigue attached to the larger clay-court season is worth keeping in the background.

For Coric and Djokovic, the calculus of this week is not that layered. Coric just produced a strong March hardcourt run in the United States. He needs to keep producing positive results and confidence-building experiences. Djokovic needs as many matches as possible. Merely winning two matches in a row (which he would achieve by beating Coric) would mark a big step forward. Being able to get past Coric and merely play Thiem in the round of 16 would give Nole the chance to measure himself against a top claycourter who dismissed him from Roland Garros a year ago. Coric and Djokovic do not represent the more tangled dimensions of this story.

Thiem and Nadal, on the other hand, enter these next 48 hours (beginning Wednesday and running through Friday’s quarterfinals) caught between two needs. On one hand, they both excel on clay and are in position to roll up big numbers of clay points to sustain their rankings for the rest of the season. That’s a powerfully important aspect of the upcoming months, hence a reason to do well in Monte Carlo. On the other hand, Thiem and Nadal — both trying to work their way back into a comfortable rhythm after injuries — are in positions where they do not want to overwork themselves and leave themselves spent for Roland Garros. 

Thiem made a relatively quick comeback from injury to play Monte Carlo, and while he looked generally unaffected in his Tuesday win over Andrey Rublev, he needed two hours and 40 minutes to win the match. Thankfully for him, he gets Wednesday off before the round of 16 on Thursday, but if he plays a long match then and (should he win) a long match against Nadal on Friday (assuming Rafa advances), he will be exhausted in late April.

Thiem has lots of points to defend in Madrid and Rome, so there’s little reason to think he would skip those tournaments. However, if he wins these next “48 Hours” in Monte Carlo, he is looking at a very heavy workload on clay if he wants to defend a large percentage of the points he is carrying. Winning in Monte Carlo could have a harmful effect down the line.

The reality is not exactly the same for Rafa… but close enough to be appreciated and understood. Rafa is defending championship (1,000) points in Monte Carlo, so it’s not as though he has to save his point-defending best for later events. In Rome, he is carrying only quarterfinal points, meaning it is an event he should skip if he wants to be ready for Roland Garros and not enter Paris overburdened. One could make this discussion less complicated if one presumes Rafa will miss Rome.

However, is that likely? Almost assuredly not. We know Rafa loves to go whole-hog on red dirt, for all the obvious reasons. However, even his clay brilliance contained a limit last season. He was one exhausted tennis player when he got to Rome, and that’s why a hungry Thiem was able to catch up to and beat him in the quarters. Winning might not be as “bad” or “complicating” for Rafa in Monte Carlo as it might be for Thiem, but winning these next “48 Hours” and going on to win the semifinals and final over the weekend will immediately present Rafa with the prospect of having to play consecutive weeks before taking a one-week break in advance of the Madrid-Rome Masters double stack in mid-May. 

Remember this: It is as tough for Rafa to skip the ATP 500 event in Barcelona as it is for Roger Federer to skip the ATP 500 in Basel in late October. The point total for the event suggests that skipping the event marks the wiser decision, but the personal importance of playing in a home-nation tournament is rightly and understandably considerable for both men. We are left with the reality that Nadal — approaching his 32nd birthday in early June — might take on a level of workload which could push his body into uncomfortable places. This doesn’t necessarily mean Nadal should steer clear from a full clay schedule, but one can certainly make the case that as Rafa gets older, it will be harder to do the same amount of heavy lifting. 

This is all another way of saying that while losing in these next “48 Hours” in Monte Carlo, to Thiem or Djokovic, might feel like the end of the world to a lot of Nadal fans, the effect of a loss this week would hardly be the worst thing to happen to the runaway French Open favorite.

This edition of “48 Hours” is laden with clay complications.


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