It was the day when the former champions came out to play, one after the other. The most highly anticipated was, without a doubt, world No1 Novak Djokovic, a two-time former champion, and twice more a runner-up at the first clay Masters of the year.
Highly anticipated because Djokovic had played only three matches this season, losing at his only tournament, Dubai, in the quarter-finals. And where better to return to match-play than what he might regard as his home club: He lives just down the road from the Monte-Carlo Country Club, and routinely practises on these clay courts. As he told Amazon Prime:
“Couldn’t ask for a better place to restart my season.”
He went on: “Trying to leave whatever has happened in the last few months, learn from it, and use that as fuel.”
Those months saw him unable to play due to his Covid vaccination status, but there is no such problem back in Europe, where he hopes to make his usual build-up to the French Open. And as defending champion in Paris, he could draw level again with Rafael Nadal on 21 Majors.
Djokovic’s first hurdle on that road to Roland Garros, though came in a tricky quarter: the 22-year-old Spaniard Alejandro Davidovich Fokina, who the Serb twice beat last year.
Djokovic was followed onto centre court by the last two champions. No3 seed and defending champion Stefanos Tsitsipas did not drop a set en route to his first, and thus far only, Masters title in 2021. Local favourite, Italian Fabio Fognini, won his only Masters in Monte-Carlo in 2019. Now ranked 32, he came through a three-set test in Round 1 to face his fellow champion, having lost all three previous meetings.
But opening proceedings on the magnificent main arena that overlooks the Mediterranean was another pair in the Djokovic quarter, and in an eighth now devoid of No14 seed Roberto Bautista Agut after the Spaniard’s late withdrawal.
The 27-ranked Briton Daniel Evans was Bautista Agut’s scheduled first opponent, but was now replaced by the French lucky loser Benjamin Bonzi. It was another reason for Evans to feel confident coming into the match, but the main boost was surely his experience at the tournament last year, when he reached his first Masters semi-final in singles, and then the final in doubles, too.
Remarkably, until that week, the Briton had never won a match in any of the big clay tournaments. Indeed, he came into Monte-Carlo on a 10-match losing streak on clay courts dating back to 2017. And he had never got beyond the second round at any Masters tournament before.
Good reason, then, to have good vibes, especially considering the opposition he beat to make the semis a year ago. The lowest ranked man was former finalist, ranked 31, Dusan Lajovic; then No16 Hubert Hurkacz; followed by No1 Djokovic and No15 David Goffin. Evans was beaten by eventual champion Tsitsipas—but as luck would have it, Evans would likely have to beat two of those same players just to reach the quarter-finals this year.
His first opponent, too, was no slouch. Bonzi had been the top seed in the qualifying draw, and was at a career-high 59 just a fortnight before. The last direct entry to Monte-Carlo was ranked 57.
Evans began in top-flight mode, deploying his outstanding single-handed sliced backhand to great effect against a man who was far from comfortable on clay.
In contrast to earlier in his career, though, Evans looked more at ease on the red stuff, and broke down his opponent to devastating effect with those low-angled, spinning balls, breaking immediately, and then twice more to leave himself serving for the first set after 25 minutes.
Bonzi turned the tables at the start of that sixth game, using the same slice for a drop-shot winner to go 0-30 against Evans. An off-backhand looked like a winner for break point, too, but was overturned by the umpire. Instead Evans had set point, and a forehand winner sealed it, 6-0. He had made just three errors in the set, but Bonzi had stacked up 15, and now called out the trainer.
They were quickly back in action, though, and Bonzi got his first game, 1-0, as the wind began to rattle the flags on their poles above centre court. The Frenchman was starting to get the measure of the Briton’s game, and broke with a fine backhand winner down the line, as Evans wrestled with swirls of dust-clouds during his serve.
Bonzi seemed also to be managing that wind better, and consolidated the break for 3-0. However, with the change of ends, Evans held to love, and did so again, and worked a break chance in the seventh game after back-to-back lob winners. He then got another chance with a backhand down-the-line and, offered a third chance, he exhorted himself to greater effort, and drew the error to break, 3-4.
Now back on level terms, they headed to a tie-break, and Evans opened in aggressive style, changing ends at 4-2. Another forehand winner and he served at 6-3 up, and one more made it 7-6(4).
It was a popular win, despite being at the expense of a Frenchman—the Monte-Carlo tournament is based just across the border into France. It had been lively, creative tennis on both sides, but Evans was particularly focused, striking 21 winners for nine errors, and making 10/11 at the net.
Next in line for Evans will be last week’s Marrakech champion Goffin, or qualifier Jiri Lehecka.
Also in the top quarter, Indian Wells champion Taylor Fritz opened his account against local man Lucas Catarina, who he edged after almost two and three-quarter hours, 6-7(6), 7-6(5), 6-4. He will next play Marin Cilic.
In the bottom half, Lorenzo Musetti beat Benoit Paire to face No6 seed Felix Auger-Aliassime, while there was another Italian win for No16 seed Lorenzo Sonego over Ilya Ivashka. Sonego next plays Laslo Djere.
• Djokovic lost in three sets to Davidovich Fokina, 6-3, 6-7, 6-1.
Source: Sport Review