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Sunday, April 15, 2012
Updated: April 16, 8:45 AM ET
Can Nadal make it eight straight?

By Ravi Ubha
ESPN.com

Monte Carlo resident Novak Djokovic was seemingly in a relaxed mood last week, taking in the U.S.'s Davis Cup series with France and signing a bunch of autographs while also prepping for the Monte-Carlo Masters.

A knee injury ruled Djokovic out of last year's tournament, but the world No. 1 is fit ahead of his potential showdown with seven-time defending champion Rafael Nadal on Sunday. We all wait to see, meanwhile, how Nadal's left knee holds up.

Here's a breakdown of the draw, which featured just one American, Donald Young, after John Isner's withdrawal.

First quarter: A breeze early for Nole

There's little early danger for Djokovic, as he starts with a qualifier or Andreas Seppi. As steady as Seppi is, the likeable Italian lacks the weaponry to upset one of the big three.

Had this been a hard court and Bernard Tomic was in form, a possible Djokovic-Tomic encounter in the third round would have enticed. But the Aussie despises playing on dirt and has done little of note since the Australian Open -- apart from break up with his girlfriend. He'll struggle to get past Denis Istomin in the first round, so don't expect a Tomic-Alexandr Dolgopolov rematch in the second.

The season commenced so well for Dolgopolov, too. Yet the Ukrainian magician has also underwhelmed since the Australian summer and fell to Italian grinder Flavio Cipolla in his Casablanca opener last week. Perhaps it's veteran Juan Ignacio Chela who'll reach the third round in Djokovic's mini-section.

Djokovic should advance to the quarterfinals with minimal fuss. He'd then likely tangle with David Ferrer or Juan Monaco, two much tougher opponents.

Prediction: Djokovic

Second quarter: The Murray-Troicki rematch

Andy Murray and clay made for a rather unexpected pairing last year. Slumping on hard courts after losing in the 2011 Australian Open final, Murray picked up his game on clay and almost upset Djokovic in a three-hour epic in Rome. Murray would then advance to the final four at the French Open.

But he was fortunate not to be ousted by Viktor Troicki in the fourth round in Paris. Troicki led by two sets and couldn't serve out the match in the fifth, unable to finish off proceedings yet again versus a top-five player. Troicki disposed of perennial Monte Carlo wild card Jean-Rene Lisnard in the first round Sunday, so he'll get another crack at Murray.

Lower down, one of tennis' forgotten men, Marin Cilic, might face Tomas Berdych in the second round. Despite Croatia's loss to Argentina in the Davis Cup quarterfinals, Cilic acquitted himself nicely by surprising David Nalbandian in a five-hour slugfest on clay in Buenos Aires.

Young, doing little to back up his 2011 thus far, would do well to top Paul-Henri Mathieu in the first round. Yes, Mathieu only recently returned to the circuit following a serious knee injury, but the Frenchman's preferred surface is clay, and he won a round in Casablanca.

Prediction: Murray

Third quarter: Wide open

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is the highest seed in the quarter, which means it's anyone's to take. As much as Tsonga likes clay, he's more productive on hard courts and grass. Philipp Kohlschreiber can pull off a minor upset if they battle in the second round.

The clay-court swing came at the right time for the drifting Fernando Verdasco, who blew opportunities in a straight-sets loss to Juan Martin del Potro in the third round in Indian Wells and tamely lost to fellow Spaniard Nicolas Almagro in the same round in Miami. Verdasco was one of the stars on clay in 2010, appeared in two clay finals in 2011 and reached the final in Acapulco 1½ months ago.

The clay-court education of Milos Raonic continues, when the huge-serving Canuck begins with clay-court specialist Albert Montanes.

Prediction: Verdasco

Fourth quarter: What to expect from Rafa?

After giving Murray a walkover to the Miami final, Nadal rested, received treatment and returned to practice Wednesday. That means he'll have about a week to prepare for his second-round match, which should take place, as usual, this Wednesday.

If the knee continues to bother him, but only slightly, and the match fitness isn't there, Nadal should still be able to cope in the first few rounds. This is clay, where he's been so dominant, after all. He'll play one of two veterans, Jarkko Nieminen or Radek Stepanek, in the round of 32. And though potential third-round opponent Florian Mayer upended Nadal in Shanghai last fall, that was indoors on a hard court.

The test comes in the quarterfinals, where barring something unusual, the in-form Almagro will await. Almagro's usual solid results on clay this season -- he's a regular on the Latin American Golden Swing -- have been accompanied by impressive performances on hard.

Prediction: Nadal

Semifinals: Djokovic def. Murray; Nadal def. Verdasco.

Winner: Djokovic.