There is always extra pressure on players competing at the Monte Carlo Country Club. Their tennis has to match the beauty of the setting and that, to put it mildly, is a challenge.
After high winds on Sunday, Monday gave way to the kind of scene that could not be enhanced if you showed it in 3D on IMAX. The Mediterranean glistens just behind the Centre Court which sits in front of a three-story clubhouse built in 1928. Behind, towering up to the clear blue sky, are the last vestiges of the Alpine foothills as they fall away into the sea. And to the right, the Principality of Monaco spreads itself along the coastline with its high-rise apartments (start at a million dollars for a studio); the fabled Casino and luxury yachts riding anchor in the expanded harbor.
For any hacker lucky enough to play here, keeping your eye on the ball presents special problems; not just because a local beauty might stroll by but because the whole vista leaves you engulfed in the "Wow!" factor.
So when the pros come to town, they are keen not just to watch the ball but to produce their best -- some little bit of magic, perhaps, to do justice to the surroundings.
Richard Gasquet managed to do just that in his first round match against the Spaniard, Daniel Gimeno-Traver. After losing the second set to the battling little clay-court expert, the Frenchman took control of the third with two points of sheer beauty. First, it was the flowing one-handed backhand -- one of the best strokes in the game at the moment -- that sped down the line, landing slap in the apex of his opponent's forehand court. Then the killer -- a delicate drop shot followed by a pinpoint lob which sailed over the Spaniard's head. The crowd loved it and Gasquet soon wrapped up a deserving 6-2, 4-6, 6-2 victory.
Earlier David Nalbandian, trying to climb back up the ranking after hip surgery last May -- the former world No. 3 is still languishing at 151 on the ATP computer -- wasted little time against Andreas Beck, beating the German 6-3, 6-1 and serving well enough to produce eight aces on the slow red clay. Not satisfied with that, the slimmed down Argentine went off for a frugal lunch and was then back on the practice courts for a long session. There's no short cut back to the top on this tour.
Tomas Berdych, who seems finally to be doing justice to his talents, would echo that sentiment. The big Czech, who was so impressive on his way to reaching the Sony Ericsson final at Key Biscayne last week, has managed to haul himself back to No. 15 as he attempts to match, if not exceed, his career best of No. 9 which he achieved back in August 2007.
Berdych seemed to have little difficulty with the dramatic switch from hard courts to the slip-slidin' nature of clay -- which requires such different foot movement -- and defeated an old rival, Feliciano Lopez, 6-3, 6-1. That win leveled their career head-to-head record at three wins apiece. Now the Czech will face Gasquet in a match that will require more from the Frenchman than beautiful backhands if he is to win.
Meanwhile, Rafael Nadal confined himself to the practice court as he prepares to defend a title he has won five years in succession which, even for him, is a staggering achievement. He has won 27 consecutive matches in Monte Carlo, which is the kind of streak you would never get at the roulette wheel. But then, with the meticulous man from Mallorca, there is never anything left to chance. Preparation, dedication and flat out hard work under-pin Nadal's success and, of course, he is a little more anxious than usual to defend his title here because he has not won a title on the tour since Rome last May.
Nadal insists that his confidence has been bolstered by his consistent showing on the hard courts so far this year even if he didn't win a title.
"I didn't win yet but I was there all the time," he said. "In Doha, for sure -- probably the best level in Doha. In Indian Wells I was playing very good tournament. I played terrible in semifinal but the rest of the matches I was playing very high level. And in Miami, too, I played well. And now, like every year, is always a pleasure for me to play Monte Carlo."
But Nadal is a realist and is not getting carried away. He knows he has a short window of opportunity on clay -- easily his best surface -- to collect the points that will bolster him for the rest of the year.
"I only play four, five tournaments a year on clay," he pointed out. "It is not a lot, no? I always think the clay is going to be a little bit easier for me but ...I don't know, it doesn't mean that since I won Monte Carlo five years in a row, I can win for a sixth time."
No, but with Roger Federer taking a week off and Andy Murray struggling for form, you would be better off at that roulette table than betting against him.