During the clay court season the main challenge to The Big Three need not necessarily come from their nearest challengers but from specialists on the slow red surface who may be ranked outside the top ten. This was the lesson driven home by events at the Monte Carlo Open which concluded on Sunday.
Novak Djokovic bowed out in the quarterfinals while Rafael Nadal was stunned in the semifinals. And while Roger Federer gave the tournament a miss third ranked Alexander Zverev made another early exit. The big winner was the relatively unknown Fabio Fognini of Italy. The 31-year-old clay court specialist in winning his first Masters title jumped from 18th to 12th in the rankings and with more clay court tournaments coming up over the next couple of months he has the opportunity to break into the top ten.
Fognini surprised Nadal in the penultimate round and the Spaniard superstar admitted that it was his worst clay court match in 14 years. For Fognini it was not a new experience – it was his fourth career win over Nadal and third on clay.
If Fognini was relatively unknown the man he defeated in the final 48th ranked Dusan Lajovic was hardly known outside the tennis circuit. In fact the unseeded Serb was playing in his first ATP Tour final after getting the better of Russia’s 10th seeded Dantil Medvedev who had ousted Djokovic in the previous round. His unexpectedly successful run at Monte Carlo saw Lajovic leap up to 23 in the latest rankings.
But it was the shock defeats of Djokovic and Nadal that remained the talking point. The top ranked player in the world was looking forward to the Monte Carlo tournament as a preparation for the French Open for a title triumph at Roland Garros would give him a fourth consecutive Grand Slam. But his preparations were dealt a severe blow and marked another comparatively early exit from yet another Masters 1000 tournament following early round losses at Indian Wells and Miami.
Nadal has won the Monte Carlo event eleven times, was defending champion and had a run of winning 25 consecutive sets at the tournament before going down to Fognini. But Nadal and Djokovic were not the only major casualties. Also falling by the wayside were Zverev and fifth ranked Dominic Thiem. Zverev after promising much following his triumph at the season ending Masters in November last year has had an indifferent year making early exits at Indian Wells, Miami, Marrakech and now Monte Carlo. Thiem who has a pretty good record on clay and was widely expected to challenge Djokovic and Nadal went down in the second round to Lajovic. With a number of clay court tournaments coming up more such upsets could well be on the cards.