Volleying in vogue on Monte Carlo clay

SERBIA’S Novak Djokovic hits a return. | AFP

SERBIA’S Novak Djokovic hits a return. | AFP

Published Apr 13, 2024


Deborah Curtis-Setchell

THE Monte Carlo Masters, marking the start of the clay-court season, got off to a sluggish start since the ‘checkered flag’ was metaphorically raised on Monday.

To lose one of your biggest drawcards, world No 3 Carlos Alcaraz, through injury in the wake of Rafa Nadal’s withdrawal was a huge blow to spectators, but to then have to witness the demise of defending champion Andrey Rublev in his opening match, ousted by lower ranked Australian Alexei Popyrin, dramatically diluted the competition.

On top of this, the early rounds produced whitewash after whitewash, with rain delays not helping matters, until hallelujah, along came the volleyers to liven up proceedings in the round 16.

Former champion Stefanos Tsitsipas was back to his aggressive ways, slicing, spinning and stabbing the ball to send fifth seed Alexander Zverev packing 7-5, 7-6 – but not before relinquishing a 5-1 ascendency in the second set, which saw the German come roaring back to take the match to a tiebreaker.

“I am proud of the composure I showed at that moment,” Tsitsipas declared after his win. And he can be proud of the fact that he’s back in the quarter-finals.

Showing less composure in squandering four match points, but always providing high-octane entertainment, was another of the rare breeds of one-handed backhanders, Grigor Dimitrov, newly restored to the world’s top 10 and facing arguably the most aggressive player around – in the absence of Alcaraz – seventh seed Holger Rune.

Both were in swashbuckling form at the net, but Dane Rune serve-volleyed his way out of tiebreaker trouble in the first set, which lasted over an hour and a half – more time than it had taken to complete the average match in the early rounds.

Dimitrov grabbed the second set and only when the flamboyant Bulgarian retreated behind the baseline did Rune ultimately prevail in a 7-6, 3- 6, 7-6, blockbuster to join the last eight.

Meanwhile, the oldest No 1 in ATP Tour history, Novak Djokovic, with only three matches under his belt since the Australian Open, gained revenge for his defeat last year at this venue by Lorenzo Musetti, beating the Italian in straight sets.

What was fascinating about this match was that Djokovic won 16 out of 29 points at the net. I’ve never seen him come in to net that much!

He’s obviously trying to keep the rallies short – “It’s very hot out there today,” said TV commentator Gilles Muller – although it seems that the Serb’s choice of former doubles No 1 Nenad Zimonjic as his new coach is already paying dividends in terms of honing those volleying skills.

Also waking up to the fact that mixing up one’s game is essential is world No 4 Daniil Medvedev, who, after felling Gael Monfils in Round 2, announced that he’s been working hard on forcing himself to come in to net more – something he’s refrained from doing in the past.

Rublev would do well to follow suit.

Ironically, their Russian compatriot Karen Khachanov then stopped Medvedev dead in his tracks, overwhelming him in straight sets 6-3, 7-5 to reach the Monte Carlo quarters for the first time.

“Medvedev has said many times he doesn’t like clay, but I do and that helped me mentally,” Khachanov mentioned.

Clearly, all the players making it through to the last eight, including eighth seed Casper Ruud and second seed Jannik Sinner, are comfortable on clay, with the exception of Australian No 1 Alex de Minaur.

The question is rather: Who is going to be the most aggressive on this surface in the lead-up to Roland Garros to clinch the title, as no doubt net skills are weighing in heavily.