The first major clay-court tournament of the season will see Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic face off for a place in the Monte Carlo final and the chance to gain an early edge ahead of the French Open. Nadal, the record nine-time champion at Roland Garros, beat David Ferrer in three sets on Friday to set up a last four matchup with Djokovic, after the world No. 1 came through against Marin Cilic in a little over an hour.
The pair have squared off for the last three years at the French Open, twice in the final, with Nadal coming out on top on each occasion to continue to deny Djokovic the one Grand Slam title still to elude him. They have also met three times in Monte Carlo, all finals. And, while Nadal was victorious in the first two, Djokovic triumphed most recently, in 2013. Having also beaten the Spaniard in the final of Rome last year, the Serbian will be hoping that he is getting ever closer to finally dethroning the king of clay.
On current form, he certainly looks to be the favorite coming into this matchup. Djokovic has been sensational in 2015, losing just two matches to date, and lifting the titles at the Australian Open, Indian Wells and Miami. And he has been in peerless form thus far in his first clay-court event of the year. Through his first three matches, the top seed has dropped just 12 games, and in the quarterfinals he disposed of US Open champion Cilic for the loss of only three. Speaking ahead of Nadal’s victory over Ferrer, Djokovic sounded confident of being able to overcome his next challenge.
“It's probably the biggest clay court challenge you can have, playing against Nadal or Ferrer,” he said, reports the ATP Tour website. “Both of these guys have had so much success on this surface, especially Rafa, this tournament in particular.
“I [have] got to prepare myself mentally for that. Other than the mental part, I think physically I'm ready. I'm not exhausted. I haven't spent too much time on the court. Also, I'm feeling the ball really well. Hopefully, I can perform well. I know that I'm going to need to keep the high level of performance throughout the entire match tomorrow.”
Nadal’s progress at the prestigious Masters 1000 event has not be nearly as smooth. While the eight-time Monte Carlo winner got through his opening match with Luca Pouille with little fuss, he was pushed to three tight sets by big-serving American John Isner and his veteran compatriot Ferrer. It follows what has been a tough start to the year for Nadal after returning from injuries that decimated his second half of 2014. Despite winning the title on clay in Buenos, he failed to make it through to the semifinals of either Indian Wells or Miami.
Still, even were he to lose on Saturday, he is unlikely to be unduly concerned ahead of his attempts to take his number of French Open titles into double figures next month. Last year his clay-court season was a disappointment by his own unparalleled standards, and it was the first time he registered three losses in his favored part of the season entering the French Open. And still he won the title in Paris. Yet Nadal, the ultimate competitor, will be in no mood to contemplate a fifth defeat in his last six matches to the man who poses by far the biggest threat to his Roland Garros reign.
Start time: Saturday, 9:30 a.m. EDT
TV channel: Tennis Channel