The first clay Masters 1000 of the season just finished in Monte Carlo. The casual tennis fan probably thinks that Rafael Nadal ran riot in the Principality and won it for the 326th time.
Only kidding, Rafa has actually been victorious there 11 times before, so the average punter is not far off.
But last week, the King of Clay did not have the tools or the time required to defend his fiefdom. For just the fifth time in his career, Nadal lost in Monte Carlo and it wasn’t by the racquet of Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer or Stan Wawrinka.
Fabio Fognini, a tortured genius that lies somewhere between John McEnroe and a Ligurian musketeer, completely outplayed the Spaniard in their semi-final. The Italian almost bageled Nadal in the second set before some typical Rafa resolve prolonged the affair.
Having mastered the windy conditions and his illustrious opponent, Fognini finished the job with a 6-4 6-2 scoreline. It was Nadal’s first loss at the Monte Carlo Country Club in four years. To Fognini’s credit, he backed up the performance on Sunday. The 31-year-old defeated another surprise finalist, Dusan Lajovic, 6-3 6-4 to claim the first Masters 1000 crown of his career.
While you might have expected either Nadal or Djokovic to leave Monte Carlo with the winners’ cheque, breakout performances at Masters events have become the norm on the ATP Tour.
The big three’s hegemony, at least at Masters level, has finally been ruptured. For some nostalgia, let’s go back in time to 2004 and the start of the Roger Federer era.
The Swiss, then aged 21 and sporting a questionable ponytail, captured his first Masters title at Indian Wells with a straight-sets victory over Tim Henman. Federer added a couple more that season – Hamburg, Canada – and 15 years later can admire 28 Masters trophies in his cabinet.
That’s a fine haul, but it’s not even the all-time record as Nadal (33 titles) and Djokovic (32) are slightly ahead of the maestro in Masters titles won.
For all you statos out there, there have been 138 Masters 1000 events from Indian Wells 2004 to Monte Carlo last week. The big three walked off with 93 of them or 67%. When you add Andy Murray’s 14 titles into the mix that figure rises to 107 titles or almost 76%. That’s an obscene level of dominance from four men.
But, probably to the tour’s benefit, the story has recently changed. Since the start of 2017, there have been 10 new names etched on Masters trophies.
Sascha Zverev (3), Jack Sock, Grigor Dimitrov, Karen Khachanov, John Isner, Juan Martin del Potro, Dominic Thiem and Fabio Fognini have each barged their way through a Masters week.
With six events left in the season, the question is: will the top guys regain their dominance or are we likely to see more unheralded players embrace their not quite major moment?
I believe this trend will continue for a variety of reasons. First, the big three have issues to contend with. The world no.1 is not at the level he found in Melbourne and exited Indian Wells, Miami and Monte Carlo much earlier than most expected.
Nadal has struggled to complete hard court tournaments over the past few years due to physical problems and Federer will only play one Masters event on clay this season and may skip Paris again.
As for the challengers, there is a lot of talent to get excited about in the top 10 and beyond. You should expect Dominic Thiem, Sascha Zverev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Karen Khachanov, Daniil Medvedev, Borna Coric and Denis Shapovalov to pose an ever-greater threat to the established trio.
While the Grand Slams may continue to be off-limits for the chasing pack, Masters titles are now within reach. Let’s see how effective the new generation are at hunting.