Novak Djokovic's clay-court season hasn't quite gone to plan.
Djokovic, unlike in 2011, played the Monte Carlo Masters, no doubt pumped up for a possible encounter with repeat champion Rafael Nadal. Heading into the tournament, Djokovic would have liked his chances against Nadal given their lopsided record of late.
But Djokovic, deeply affected by the death of his grandfather a few days earlier, was no match for a motivated Nadal in the finale.
Inflicting another psychological blow to Nadal had to wait.
Djokovic was still not ready to compete the following week, so he made the difficult decision to withdraw from his home-country Serbian Open event in Belgrade. But that meant the world No. 1 would bypass competing for three straight weeks.
At the Madrid Masters, his mood was sour. Showing grit and sticking to business on the ice rink of the tournament's blue clay in a third-round win over Stanislas Wawrinka, he let rip on former ATP head Adam Helfant the next day following a defeat to countryman Janko Tipsarevic. Further, like Rafa, Djokovic vowed not to return to Madrid in 2013 if the blue dirt was still around.
Roger Federer and most of the women didn't kick up a fuss, did they?
Arriving in Rome and returning to the "paradise," as he called it, of red clay, Djokovic couldn't blame the surface if things didn't go well in the Italian capital.
And if a gutsy Juan Monaco hadn't fallen victim to nerves Thursday as the windy conditions persisted, a still-annoyed Djokovic would have lost in the third round -- not the kind of preparation he hoped for as he chases a fourth straight Grand Slam title at the French Open.
Djokovic advanced 4-6, 6-2, 6-3 to likely set up an encounter with another Argentine, Juan Martin del Potro, who is in desperate need of a win against the big three.
We didn't expect much from Monaco on Thursday. He was on his way back from an ankle injury sustained in Monte Carlo (thankfully, it looked worse than it turned out to be), robbing him of the momentum he collected in Miami and Houston. His two wins this week in Rome came against a qualifier and an aging Radek Stepanek, making it difficult to assess Monaco's form. Like his good friend Nadal, Monaco is a valiant competitor on the court.
Monaco said in April he was trying to become more aggressive, and this adjustment to his game could be seen. Monaco's forehand, judging by the past two months, has improved considerably. He's hitting it flatter. Especially in the first set against Djokovic, his forehand did some damage. In the first set, Monaco won more return points than Djokovic, who is considered the best returner on tour.
Djokovic was so annoyed with his performance in the opening set that he slammed his racket, then broke it after two straight points to cap the set. To frustrate him even more, Djokovic lost his footing at least three times as the wind caused havoc with the condition of the court. Karma?
But Monaco, unfortunately, has a reputation for getting tight. When he broke Djokovic to take a 2-1 lead in the second set, he had to hold immediately. Instead, he was broken at love to begin a stretch of 10 straight points conceded.
Monaco recovered slightly in the third set and worked a 30-0 lead on Djokovic's serve at 3-3. Djokovic hung on. Monaco blew a 30-0 lead in the ensuing game, and that quickly made it 5-3.
Djokovic won in Rome and Madrid last year, but it didn't translate to a title at the French Open. Conversely, the way he's played for most of the past 12 months, he might be able to win Roland Garros this year without having a 2012 clay title under his belt. We suspect, though, he could use a boost of confidence in Rome.
For that to happen, his level needs to improve with del Potro, Federer and Nadal all looming.
A breeze for Rafa
Here's some information on Nadal's most recent victim, fellow Spaniard Marcel Granollers.
In April, he was the recipient of the "Player 10" award, handed out by a tennis journalists' association in Spain. The award, according to the ATP, is given to the player "that demonstrates both strong tennis skills and good human qualities."
Interesting list. Since 2000, only one of the 13 winners hasn't been a Spanish or Portuguese speaker (Lleyton Hewitt), and Nadal last received it in 2007.
Granollers seems nice enough, and he stands out because of a varied game, but he has a strange habit of picking his spots to grunt. The grunts grew louder as he attempted to close out brooding Italian Fabio Fognini on Wednesday, and in the fourth game against Nadal on Thursday -- on a key point at deuce -- Granollers upped the level. After he hit a winning inside-out forehand to get to game point, Nadal replied with what appeared to be a booming "Come on."
Nadal saved break points in his first two service games, then cruised to a 6-1, 6-1 win, handling the wind-strewn conditions better than he did in Indian Wells. Much of the first set was laborious stuff: The breeze intensified, kicking up more clay, and there were extended delays between points.
Once Nadal stamped his authority on the match by executing a trademark forehand pass down the line from five yards behind the baseline, most of the enthusiasm and determination the world No. 26 initially showed disappeared.
Don't worry, Marcel, you're not the only one.
Just as dazzling: Nadal carved Granollers up in the second set. Nadal hit a low backhand slice down the line and ran around Granollers' reply to smack an inside-out forehand winner.
Nadal's quarterfinal against Madrid runner-up Tomas Berdych won't be so easy, but his day of work was smoother than Djokovic's.