The 111th annual Monte-Carlo Masters marked the beginning of the European clay court swing. With a new season came new opportunities for the ATP’s finest players, as developing talent was eager to break through and accomplished stars were looking to rekindle former glory.

First round

Although the top-eight seeds all received byes into the second round, there were a myriad of enticing matches on show in the first stage of the tournament. On day one, ninth seed Tomas Berdych survived a scare against Andrey Kuznetsov, and thirty-nine-year-old Tommy Haas rolled back the years with a straight sets win over Benoit Paire. Elsewhere, rising star Borna Coric was unable to consolidate his title in Marrakech, crashing out in round one.

Day two was headlined by an all-British affair between Kyle Edmund and Dan Evans. It was Edmund who prevailed, scoring a convincing straight-sets victory. Pocket rocket David Goffin and NextGen star Alexander Zverev also impressed, as both burst into the Monte-Carlo Country Club with domineering victories.

Second round

The second round was laden with tough outings for the top seeds. Stan Wawrinka was forced into a deciding set by Jiri Vesely, and Andy Murray squeezed his way out of a tight contest with Gilles Muller.

Novak Djokovic’s encounter with Gilles Simon also promised to be a nail-biting affair, and it did not disappoint. The Serb convincingly snared the opening set, before Simon’s clay-court prowess began to emerge to the forefront of the match. The contest was soon level at one set apiece, as Simon’s counterpunch appeared to be unbreakable. However, although Djokovic may not have been exhibiting the form of previous years, his fighting qualities remained. With his French rival serving for the match, Djokovic refused to fade. After breaking back, the world number two carried the momentum through the following two games to secure the win.

Elsewhere, the King of Clay Rafael Nadal was in action. With Roger Federer’s absence, Nadal found himself with a protected ranking until the semi-finals. However, his second round bout was no swamping. An inspired Kyle Edmund proved to be a worthy adversary for the Spaniard, but ultimately succumbed to his opponent’s menacing groundstrokes, granting Nadal a relieving victory.

There was to be no relief, however, for Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Grigor Dimitrov, as both crashed out in tight three-setters in the second round. Tommy Haas’s campaign also came to an end, as Tomas Berdych edged the German veteran despite dropping the opening set.

Third round

The third round saw a number of memorable matches on the red dirt, as the elite players once again struggled against surging opponents. Many spectators were predicting an upset as Andy Murray stepped onto Court Rainier III to face Albert Ramos-Vinolas. The opening two sets were traded, before Murray’s well-rounded clay-court game allowed him to pull away. However, with the Brit leading by the seemingly unconquerable margin of 4-0 in the decider, Ramos-Vinolas’s inner beast awoke. With the Spaniard scampering about the dirt for every ball, Murray’s level dipped. The tide had been shifted, as Ramos-Vinolas scored the decisive break at 5-5. He was in danger of stumbling at the final hurdle, but a botched drop-shot from Murray spelled the end to the bout. “I haven’t lost many matches like that in my career” said Murray as he reflected on his missed opportunities.

Another shocking casualty was Stan Wawrinka. His opponent, Pablo Cuevas, cruised through the entire match, denying the Swiss of any opportunity to break serve. Dominic Thiem, a rising clay-court technician, was also sent packing, as the young Austrian was edged by nemesis David Goffin in three sets.

On a day riddled with upsets, another shocking result appeared to be on the cards as Pablo Carreno Busta found himself with break points deep in the deciding set against Novak Djokovic. Perhaps déjà vu for the Serb, as he wrestled his way out of his service game and urged himself to match points moments later. Djokovic managed to survive another close-shave, finishing the contest with an emphatic forehand drive volley.

Elsewhere, Rafael Nadal put on a clay-court clinic against Alexander Zverev. For the German, there were to be no birthday celebrations. Despite driving the Spaniard to the brink during previous meetings, Zverev had no answer to the Nadal onslaught on this occasion. The fourth seed powered through for the loss of two games.

Marin Cilic also fought on, vanquishing fellow heavy-hitter Tomas Berdych after trouncing a second set tie-break. Meanwhile, Lucas Pouille quietly continued his campaign, as Tsonga’s conqueror Adrian Mannarino was forced to retire after three games.

Quarter-finals

The first quarter-final showdown pitted Marin Cilic against Albert Ramos-Vinolas. Cilic would have, initially, been thankful to have avoided Murray, but the fifth seed was outmanoeuvred in the first set. Raining down forehand winner after forehand winner, Ramos-Vinolas soon found himself serving for the match. Cilic’s heavy groundstrokes, however, denied the Spaniard the victory. The Croatian was in a frenzy in the tie-break, and concluded the set with a pin-point forehand volley. Cilic managed to snap Ramos-Vinolas’s serve in the decider, but a string of errors levelled the affair once again. The fifteenth seed characteristically fed off his opponent’s frustration, racing away with the match thereafter.

The second man to etch his spot in the final four was Lucas Pouille, who, despite flying under the radar, was in top-notch form. The Frenchman weathered the storm of Pablo Cuevas in three see-sawing sets.

Next up on Court Rainier III was the highly anticipated match between Novak Djokovic and David Goffin. The first set was a surprisingly one-sided event, as the Belgian utilised his famed backhand down-the-line to its full potential. When Djokovic suffered a nasty fall early in the second, the world number two appeared dejected and exhausted. But he refused to crumble. Playing with unchecked aggression, the Serb swept the second set. The resurgence continued into the third, but with Djokovic on the verge of a double-break lead, Goffin lit up. The former champion had survived two intense slugfests earlier in the week, but Goffin’s determination proved to be a challenge too difficult for Djoker. On match point five, The Djokovic resistance finally collapsed as a deep backhand from Goffin sent the second seed stumbling backwards. The Belgian had secured the biggest victory of his career.

Goffin’s reward was a clash against the winner of the subsequent quarter-final match. Diego Schawrtzman had capitalised on previous upsets throughout the week to sneak into the final eight and win a shot against the unstoppable force, Rafael Nadal. Schwartzman proved to be a game opponent, but ultimately lacked the weapons to truly faze Nadal.

Semi-finals

So, the semi-finals were set! Lucas Pouille and Albert Ramos-Vinolas kicked off proceedings with an entertaining three set tug-of-war. Pouille took a while to start up, dropping the first set, but in the second he was revving his engines. The Frenchman swung a fist in triumph as he scored the decisive break after a marathon rally. However, early in the decider, it was clear that Pouille’s efforts had been in vain. Pouille’s injury woes combined with Ramos Vinolas’s clay court wizardry saw the Spaniard coast through the third set to clinch a spot in the grand final.

With a peaking Ramos-Vinolas awaiting, Nadal and Goffin were left to battle it out for the second spot in the final. With Goffin showcasing his genius against the King of Clay, the contest was perfectly poised for a three-set classic. However, with the Belgian leading by a break at 3-2, the entire match was up-ended. As Nadal overcooked a forehand long, Goffin pulled ahead, 4-2 . . . or so we thought. Although the ball was indeed out, umpire Cedric Maurier overruled the call. “It was very significant” said Nadal of the incident, “at the beginning he was dominating all the points”. Goffin, a player known for his calm demeanour, was beside himself in frustration. With his focus scrunched, Goffin allowed himself to dissolve, winning only one game thereafter. For Goffin, the match was a disappointing end to a stellar tournament. For Nadal, it was the gateway to his eleventh Monte-Carlo final.

Final

The grand final was a fitting end to the tournament, as the breakout star was set to face the reigning, defending champion. It was a historic match for Rafael Nadal, as a victory would earn him the most clay-court titles in Open Era history. The early proceedings favoured Nadal, as Ramos-Vinolas was forced to ward off three break points in his opening service game. However, his fortitude was to no avail, as Nadal steamrolled through the following five games to clamp the first set. It was much of the same in the second. Ramos-Vinolas did boost his game, but even his best efforts were not forceful enough to raze Nadal’s defences. With Ramos-Vinolas serving at 3-5 in the second, Nadal sensed an opportunity. At deuce, a brutal baseline war ended with Nadal blasting a backhand winner down-the-line. Ramos-Vinolas managed to save the following two match points, but on the third, his dream run ended with a double fault. Nadal lifted his arms in victory, as he had made history.

Once again it was Rafael Nadal who emerged victorious on the red dirt of Monte-Carlo. Will Rafa dominate the remainder of the clay court season? Be sure to tune in on Tennis-Pulse.com.