Saturday not only marked the start of the 125th edition of the Monte-Carlo Masters (MCM) at the Monte-Carlo Country club, but also heralded the return of fans to the famous clay courts.
The big names of tennis such as Novak Djokovic and last year’s winner Stefanos Tsitsipas are being held in reserve for now. Fans were nonetheless spoilt for choice, with an array of high-quality fixtures being played across all of the MCCC’s clay courts on the first two qualifying days.
Following the cancellation of the 2020 MCM, and the 2021 installment being held behind closed-doors, fans couldn’t have dreamed of better weather on their first outing to the MCCC in three years.
Locals struggle on home clay
Spectators filed through the gates throughout the morning to take up their seats in the sun-bathed stands. Any Monegasque tennis fans may, however, have been left disappointed by the on-court action on the opening day. Valentin Vacherot and Hugo Nys, both of whom competed in Monaco’s recent Davis Cup triumph over Morocco, lost in their qualifying matches.
Vacherot opened proceedings on the Court de Princes, losing to German Oscar Otte in straight sets (6-4, 7-6). Nys then came up against Jaume Munar on Court 2. The difference in level was evident from the outset. Munar, number 78 in the world, is placed 249 places above Nys, who struggled to hold serve during a straight sets loss (2-6, 2-6).
The support of his Davis Cup team, who attended and encouraged their compatriot, wasn’t enough to get Nys across the line as the Monegasque players exited the scene in the opening hours of the tournament. Nys will however be back in action alongside partner Romain Arneodo in the doubles on Tuesday.
The French also struggled on the opening weekend. Hugo Gaston came up against the Italian Flavio Cobolli in the first match on the Court Rainier III, but despite an inferior ranking of over 100 places, it was Cobolli who advanced (4-6, 2-6). Benjamin Bonzi came through his first qualifier on Saturday (6-3, 6-3), before losing out to Polish player Jiri Lehecka on Sunday (4-6, 3-6).
Frenchman Adrian Mannarino was also knocked out in his first qualifying tie (1-6, 6-4, 5-7), as was Luca Van Assche (6-3, 6-4). Just to add insult to injury for French tennis fans in attendance, Gael Monfils withdrew from the tournament on Sunday with a heel injury.
Big stars waiting in the wings
Nonetheless, there will be no shortage of big names on display over the course of the next week. Before their match-ups, they spoke to the press on Sunday. One of the first to take to the court will be Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who last week shocked tennis fans globally when he announced that he would be retiring after this year’s Roland Garros. In a video, the Frenchman said, “My body is telling me ‘you can’t go any further than what I give you’.”
He hasn’t lost his competitiveness, however, and stated in no uncertain terms that he was at the MCM to compete. “I’m not just here to be just an amateur. I will enjoy it only if I do what I have enjoyed doing my whole career, which is fighting and trying to win.”
Going into the tournament, it was expected that Djokivc’s presence would be the largest talking point. Following his deportation from Australia, where he was set to take part in the Australian Open, his vaccination status has meant that elite-level tennis has been hard to come by. During the press conference, which introduced the event back in February, his participation at the MCM was questionable, and dependent upon a change either from the player himself regarding taking the vaccine, or a change in French government policy. It was a change in the latter that allowed him to compete this week.
On Sunday, the Serbian opened up about the difficulties of the months since that deportation. “It has been a very challenging few months and something I’ve never experienced before. I will try and use that for fuel for what’s coming up.” Clearly fired up, he couldn’t be making his return in more familiar surroundings. “I’m very pleased to be here and Monaco has been home really for over 10 years. I have trained at this club on both hard and clay courts, so I know people at this club very well,” said Djokovic.
He will likely face stiff competition from Tsitsipas for this year’s title, last year’s winner is happy to be back on a court on which he has created some great memories. “I’m feeling great. Starting with the tournament here in Monte-Carlo, I feel like I’m at home playing on this court.”
Both Djokovic and Tsitsipas get their tournaments underway on Tuesday as the stars of world tennis descend upon the MCCC to kick-off the clay-court season.