Five Must-See First-Round Matches

It will not take long for breathtaking tennis to be played at the Monte-Carlo Country Club, with plenty of jaw-dropping first-round matchups. The ATP World Tour’s best are set to get things underway on Sunday at the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters, the first clay-court ATP World Tour Masters 1000 event of the season.

Tomas Berdych v Kei Nishikori
Any time two players who have climbed to No. 4 in the ATP Rankings meet at a tournament, it’s must-see action. And when they clash in the first round of an ATP World Tour Masters 1000 event, you need to grab extra popcorn. Nishikori leads the pair’s FedEx ATP Head2Head series 4-1, but interestingly enough, the bigger-hitting Berdych earned his lone victory on clay six years ago, also in Monte-Carlo. He is also the 2015 runner-up at the event.

The key will be how well the Japanese superstar will be able to defend on the dirt against an onslaught of lasered groundstrokes from the baseline coming from Berdych. Nishikori, who is still working his way back to form after missing five months due to a wrist injury, will have to neutralise the Czech’s offence on his home courts — Berdych resides in Monte-Carlo and trains at the Monte-Carlo Country Club — and force him to take more risks from difficult positions. Their last match came at the 2015 Nitto ATP Finals.

Mischa Zverev v Felix Auger-Aliassime
Experience against youth. Serve-and-volleyer against baseliner. Who wouldn’t want to watch that? Mischa Zverev, a savvy veteran, takes on #NextGenATP Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime, who last year became the fourth-youngest player to crack the Top 200 of the ATP Rankings. And just a month ago at Indian Wells, the 17-year-old became the youngest player to win an ATP World Tour Match since Denis Shapovalov at the 2016 Rogers Cup.

But perhaps what is most intriguing in this matchup is the clash of styles. The left-handed Zverev almost exclusively uses the serve and volley, venturing to the net with great variety on the serve and pure, simple technique on his volleys. Will Auger-Aliassime be able to move well enough on the slippery clay to position himself for key passing shots? Perhaps more importantly, on his own serve, the World No. 176 will need to stay on top of the baseline on his own serve, and not allow the German to venture forward even more if he is to earn a second-round meeting against No. 7 seed Lucas Pouille.

Karen Khachanov v Thanasi Kokkinakis
If you like big hitting from the baseline, you will love this first-round encounter in Monaco. Karen Khachanov, the 21-year-old, has already established himself as a force to be reckoned with on the ATP World Tour. The Russian won his second tour-level title this February at the Open 13 Provence in Marseille, and owns five Top 20 victories over the past year. But Thanasi Kokkinakis is fresh off the best win of his career at the Miami Open presented by Itau, ousting then-World No. 1 Roger Federer before falling in a third-set tie-break against veteran Fernando Verdasco in the third round.

It will be of the utmost importance for each player to control the baseline. If either competitor gives up a short ball, they will immediately be put on the defensive by the other’s powerful groundstrokes. According to Infosys ATP Scores & Stats, Khachanov is eighth on the ATP World Tour in 2018 in service games won, holding 86.72 per cent of the time, and coming in at No. 10 in first-serve points won (76.98 per cent). If he can hold easily against Kokkinakis, it might put pressure on the Australian in his service games on the red clay.

Fernando Verdasco v Pablo Cuevas
When you pit two players who have won well over 100 matches on a surface against one another in the first round of a tournament, it will certainly be one to watch. When you throw in that the pair have split four FedEx ATP Head2Head meetings, all on clay, the prospect of a great battle becomes even greater. Fernando Verdasco (213 clay wins) looks to move within one triumph of No. 500 in his career against Uruguayan star Pablo Cuevas (128 clay wins).

It will be fun to watch rallies between Verdasco’s dangerous left-handed forehand and Cuevas’ immaculate one-handed backhand, and it will be interesting to see who is brave enough to break that pattern and play aggressively down the line first. All signs point towards a grueling baseline duel between the 2010 finalist, Verdasco, and last year’s doubles champion (w/ Bopanna), Cuevas, who also beat Stan Wawrinka en route to the quarter-finals.

Albert Ramos-Vinolas v Jared Donaldson
Spaniard Albert Ramos-Vinolas returns to the scene of his best career result in Monte-Carlo. A year ago, the left-hander advanced to his maiden ATP World Tour Masters 1000 final (l. to Nadal), which propelled him into the Top 20 of the ATP Rankings for the first time. But across the net in the first round for the No. 15 seed will be an eager young American who is plenty familiar with the court surface.

Jared Donaldson, who qualified for the inaugural Next Gen ATP Finals and recently advanced to the semi-finals at the Abierto Mexicano Telcel presentado por HSBC, actually trained in Argentina for two-and-a-half years as a teenager. And while he lost against Ramos-Vinolas at this year’s Australian Open in straight sets, he is a consistent performer who will play a steady brand of tennis and look to take advantage of any sitters or short balls. If Ramos-Vinolas is not able to get his heavy-topspin forehand bouncing high on the clay to move Donaldson around and control the action, this can be a fun one.

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