Tuesday Preview: Clay Sensation Thiem Returns

Get the popcorn cooking early Tuesday — you’re going to need it.

Five Top 8 seeds are in action at the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters, the first clay-court ATP World Tour Masters 1000 event of the season. And fans won’t have to ease into the day, either.

Right off the bat, No. 5 seed Dominic Thiem takes on #NextGenATP Russian Andrey Rublev, last year’s Next Gen ATP Finals runner-up, in a battle between two of the biggest hitters on the ATP World Tour on Court Rainier III. The Austrian, Thiem, who won the pair’s only previous FedEx ATP Head2Head meeting last year in Vienna, is returning to action for the first time since suffering an ankle injury in the third round of the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells.

“All in all I’m really satisfied with the recovery and I’m 100 per cent for playing,” said Thiem, who was second on the ATP World Tour in 2017 with 22 clay-court wins, trailing only Rafael Nadal. “It’s tough to come here to collect matches because it’s really tough from the first round, so I’m here to compete from my first round… I practised well, so I’m ready to play good here.”

According to the FedEx ATP Performance Zone, Thiem’s win-rate on clay is 15th-best all-time at 74.6 per cent (91-31). Even so, it will be a tough challenge against the 20-year-old Rublev, who is No. 33 in the ATP Rankings. The aggressive-playing Russian advanced to the final at Doha to begin the season (l. to Monfils), but has lost his past five tour-level matches. So Rublev will be eager to put in a good performance against Thiem, as he seeks his second Top 10 triumph (1-8).

One of the most intriguing matches of the day is the final match on, pitting two-time Masters 1000 champion Alexander Zverev against the crafty left-hander, World No. 28 Gilles Muller. The Luxembourg star won their only previous FedEx ATP Head2Head meeting on the grass of ‘s-Hertogenbosch last season, and also defeated the German on the ATP Challenger Tour in 2015.

But Zverev has proven his form, advancing to the final of the Miami Open presented by Itau two weeks ago, his third championship match at the elite level. On the other hand, Muller, who thrives on his pinpoint service accuracy on quicker surfaces, is 0-4 against Top 10 players on clay.

Alexander’s brother, Mischa, has an even tougher test. The left-handed serve-and-volleyer faces the top-ranked Frenchman, Lucas Pouille. The No. 7 seed advanced to his second Masters 1000 semi-final in Monte-Carlo last year, and broke into the Top 10 of the ATP Rankings last month for two weeks, before dropping to his current spot at World No. 11.

Zverev, who seeks back-to-back match wins for the first time in 2018, will force Pouille to make tough shots as he likely will venture to net often in their first FedEx ATP Head2Head meeting. In the first round, Zverev ousted #NextGenATP Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime.

Reigning Nitto ATP Finals champion Grigor Dimitrov, a resident of Monte-Carlo, opens his clay-court campaign against French qualifier Pierre-Hugues Herbert. Dimitrov is making his sixth straight Monte-Carlo appearance and will look to stave off doubles standout Herbert, who is 1-7 lifetime against Top 10 opponents.

In one of the most tactically appealing matches of the day, 2010 Monte-Carlo finalist Fernando Verdasco takes on last year’s quarter-finalist and doubles champion Pablo Cuevas for the fifth time (tied 2-2) in their FedEx ATP Head2Head series. Verdasco is two wins away from becoming the sixth Spaniard in the Open Era to earn 500 career wins.

#NextGenATP Greek qualifier Stefanos Tsitsipas looks for his second win against Top 10 player David Goffin. Tsitsipas prevailed last October in Antwerp, and showed excellent tennis in defeating fellow #NextGenATP star Denis Shapovalov on Monday.

Wild card Gilles Simon, this year’s Pune titlist, looks for his first win (0-2) against countryman Adrian Mannarino, who won both of their previous FedEx ATP Head2Head meetings in 2011.

Fabio Fognini plays qualifier Ilya Ivashka of Belarus for the first time. Fognini is closing in on 300 career wins (298).

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