Depending on your tastes and assuming you care at all, one’s reaction to the near-certainty that Rafael Nadal is about to claim another Monte Carlo Masters title can be placed somewhere on a continuum between deflation and ecstasy. This scale can be found as an appendix in the latest edition of my masterpiece Bracketology, the Reading of Draws, and Why Men Have to Sleep Around. (It was adapted from a similar scale used to measure anxiety levels in those citizens exposed to pronouncements by Kim Jong-un, which typically range from pants-soiling awe all the way down to pants-wetting mirth. It turns out listening to North Korea’s enlightened leader is very injurious to one’s trousers.) The new edition was necessitated by the special problems posed by the Monte Carlo draw, specifically the problem of sustaining reasonable interest when the eventual result is foregone.
Nadal is attempting to win his fifty-eighth consecutive title in the Principality. According to my records, which admittedly differ from the official ones, he hasn’t lost since here November 12, 1955, when his knee was first ruined in a freak collision with a fugitive DeLorean. His knees have required constant care ever since. Nearly six decades later, no betting market has failed to install Nadal as the outright favourite, and for very good reasons. He has dropped six sets here since 2005. Since returning from his extended sojourn Nadal has contested four tournaments, of which he won three and finished runner-up at the other. Furthermore, his only reasonable impediment to the title – world number one Novak Djokovic – sustained an ankle injury in Boise last weekend, and was initially unlikely to play at all, although even in a wheelchair he’d no doubt turn up for the player’s party. Whether Nadal’s inevitable triumph inspires eager delight, weary indifference, or outright dyspepsia, to pretend that it leaves one breathlessly intrigued requires an unreasonable suspension of disbelief. I’m perfectly happy for Nadal to win it – he certainly deserves to – but I do wish his doing so felt less inevitable.
That being said, no one seems sure to what extent Djokovic’s ankle will truly hamper him. The initial assessment of ‘catastrophic structural collapse’ has been steadily downgraded, and he’ll be able to take the court. It helps that his first round opponent will be the irascible Billy Bye, who never learned properly to slide on this surface, and whose record on red clay is consequently dismal. It also helps that Djokovic and Nadal have been placed on separate sides of the draw, meaning they cannot meet before the finals, except socially, assuming Nadal can find time amidst the constant meetings with Prince Albert.
All of which is to reiterate that Monte Carlo is quite disruptive to the standard model of tennis draw analysis as laid out in Bracketology, my seminal work in the field of evolutionary psychology. (To those who’d point out that in science an exception to a model immediately disproves it, I would merely respond that this is what makes evolutionary psychology such an exciting discipline – it’s way out there beyond the leading edge of science, going to extraordinary lengths to legitimate adultery for us all.)
I suppose the conspiracy nuts can make their usual compelling case for a rigged draw – Stage One in the standard model – this time by pointing out that Nadal and Djokovic falling on separate sides constitutes a clear case of official manipulation. After all, it was only a fifty-fifty chance that this would happen. What are the odds? Maths isn’t my strong suit, but I’d guess one in a million. Andy Murray has been drawn to face Nadal in the semifinals. Typical. Murray’s quarter also has four qualifiers, and Stan Wawrinka and Nicolas Almagro. Make of that what you will. I predict Murray won’t reach the final four.
But those fans that derive hope by claiming their favourite as the underdog (Stage Two) are in for a dire time, especially if their favourite is Nadal. Naturally some will make the effort, and thus remind us that the term ‘fan’ evolved from the word ‘fanatic’ in the nineteenth century, and that for many it hasn’t evolved much since. Meanwhile, fans of other players can assert with perfect authority that their man won’t win the title, thereby draining most of the fun out of the exercise, and hopefully learning a helpful lesson in being careful what one wishes for. Asserting underdog status is a delicate balancing act: you want to suggest that your man winning would entail a titanic upheaval of the natural order, thereby rendering any eventual victory all the more heroic and excusing any loss as wholly understandable. Yet you don’t want to quash hope entirely; there must be some faith in victory. You want to be self-diminishing, but not self-defeating.
As ever, the genuine interest resides in the early rounds, and fortunately the Monte Carlo draw has thrown up a few interesting matches to get thing rolling. Jerzy Janowicz faces Kevin Anderson, although the South African may well be spent, since he’s contesting the Casablanca final tomorrow. Fognini and Seppi could be one for the ages, although perhaps not one for all ages. Dimitrov should beat Malisse, but both of their careers have effectively destabilised any solid definition of the term ‘should’. Ditto for Dolgopolov, who should beat Tomic. I think Benneteau has an excellent chance at upsetting Raonic, and I’d put down Gulbis as the outright favourite against Isner. Kohlschreiber and Bellucci looks tempting on paper, but the German has seemingly not regained the full measure of his form and fitness, and Bellucci is still Bellucci.
There is also a fascinating qualifying draw already underway – some unlikely bagels were plated up today – and it’ll be intriguing to see where the seven victors surface into the main draw. One of them will face Monfils, and probably lose. Another will play Davydenko, and feasibly win. Thankfully, the first few rounds should give us enough to go on, before the top seeds take over, and the draw transforms itself into a conveyor belt delivering the expected result.
Still, for a rarity, I’m going to essay some bold predictions as to the eventual quarterfinals:
- Djokovic v. Del Potro
- Seppi v. Gasquet
- Nadal v Dimitrov
- Almagro v Wawrinka
I can feel your astonishment from here, but, nonetheless, there it is. I’ve said it. Neither Florian Mayer nor Mikhail Youzhny will reach the last eight. I’m not happy about it.