Commentary

Monte Carlo results a forecast for the rest of the clay season?

If anything, the Monte Carlo Masters was a microcosm of Roger Federer's topsy-turvy season. Conversely, Rafael Nadal's championship amplified his unbeatable clay status. And the antipathy toward Novak Djokovic, after another withdrawal, only worsened.

Originally Published: April 29, 2008
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

Roger FedererAP Photo/Claude ParisA listless Roger Federer still cannot figure out how to beat Rafael Nadal on clay.
Monte Carlo's final year as a mandatory Masters Series event also proved to be mandatory television viewing for tennis die-hards last week -- viewing that was, for many of us in North America, easier than watching the big tournaments on our own continent last month, thanks to the current vagaries of tennis broadcasting.

Roger Federer's fortunes continued to be tracked more microscopically than the financial Fed's interest rate moves, resulting in some frantic gyrations in market opinion last week: He's down! He's up! He's back! He's nowhere near back! Back off, folks -- it should be clear by now that Federer's recovery from mononucleosis, especially as it plays out during his least favorite segment of the season, with a new advisor in his camp, is not a linear process.

Federer almost lost his first match to Spanish qualifier Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo. Moments after the match, he was presented with his 2007 ATP player awards and hoisted one of the three glass trophies looking slightly shell-shocked.

As the week went on, Federer made quick work of Gael Monfils, struggled early before overcoming frequent nemesis David Nalbandian, appeared to be getting the best of saddle-burr Novak Djokovic before the burr-headed one suddenly took ill, and jumped out to a 4-0 lead in the second set of the final against three-time defending champion Rafael Nadal, then just as swiftly lost his traction.

Talk all you want about Federer's form and fitness -- one of the most telling moments in this jewel box of a setting hard by the Mediterranean coast was when Federer, inspecting a ball mark on a close call, turned to Djokovic's parents in their courtside box and snapped, "Be quiet.''

Whether or not the exclamation was justified is beside the point. A year ago, that loss of cool would have been unimaginable from Federer, the epitome of composure.

Djokovic's retirement was his third in a high-profile match in the past two seasons -- he bowed out of a decisive Davis Cup match against Russia's Nikolay Davydenko leading two sets to one earlier this year, and elected to walk away from the 2007 Wimbledon semifinal with Rafael Nadal leading in the third set.

Diagnosing a player's health, or his heart, from afar is tricky business. But with each one of these withdrawals, a little more of the fans' goodwill Djokovic banked last year as part of the feel-great Serbian surge is likely to leak away.

[+] EnlargeRafael Nadal
Michael Steele/Getty ImagesRafael Nadal has won 98 of his last 99 matches on clay dating back to 2005.
Finally, Nadal took the initial step in reaffirming his dominance on clay in the first major tournament of 2008 that felt anything like 2007 on the men's side. Don't overlook that doubles win with Tommy Robredo, either, and not only because it was the first such sweep in the event in oh, over a century. The Bryan brothers will have their capable hands full in the Davis Cup semifinals in Spain this fall.

Making headway: Bobby Reynolds quietly snuck up to a career-high ranking of No. 77 this week, thanks to back-to-back wins in Challenger events in Tallahassee, Fla., and Baton Rouge, La., in the past two weeks. He's also won three doubles events this year on the lower-level circuit in what is shaping up to be his best season as a professional. The 25-year-old turned pro in 2003 after playing three seasons at Vanderbilt University.

The Atlanta-area resident raised a few eyebrows by taking France's Gilles Simon to five sets in the first round of the Australian Open (his second five-setter in Melbourne in as many years) and beating Marat Safin in Miami last month.

"I felt like it was only a matter of time,'' Reynolds said from Charleston, S.C., where he's taking a week off to relax with his fiancée, Josie Hahn, a dental student. "I've played well at the ATP level. Then when you go down to the Challenger level, you're the guy to beat, and I've kept my game together.''

Reynolds slipped into one of the last slots in the French Open direct entry list at No. 103 on April 14. He plans to make his debut in Paris after playing two more Challengers on green clay in Tunica, Miss. (an indoor event) -- where he won last year -- and Bradenton, Fla. Then he'd like to slip into the draw of one of the ATP-level tune-ups the week before Roland Garros.

"Clay isn't my favorite surface, but I wouldn't turn down the chance to play in a Grand Slam, ever, and I had pretty good success on the surface last year,'' Reynolds said. "I'll go over there without a lot of expectations and let the chips fall.''

Lost and found: Remember Younes El Aynaoui, the engaging Moroccan who played two memorably epic Grand Slam matches a few years ago? He's been out of the ATP loop for most of the past couple of seasons due to injury. Now 36 and ranked 295th, El Aynaoui qualified for Munich this week to make his first ATP-level main draw in a year. El Aynaoui won a rain-delayed U.S. Open round of 16 match at 2:14 a.m. in 2002, and battled Andy Roddick toe-to-toe for nearly five hours in the 2003 Australian Open quarterfinals -- the same year he reached a career-high No. 14.

Odds and ends: Yes, the U.S. Fed Cup team lost to Russia in Mission Impossible, but the players didn't embarrass themselves. Too bad the U.S. team's strongest entry, the doubles team composed of Vania King and world No. 1 Liezel Huber (in her U.S. Fed Cup debut after playing several times for her native South Africa), had to play a meaningless fifth match instead of a legit third one as would have been the case under the Davis Cup format.

Israel's Shahar Peer was an impressive 12-3 in Fed Cup singles going into the World Group playoff at home against the Czech Republic, but it was a tough weekend for the WTA's No. 18, who dropped both of her singles matches and saw her country relegated.

The U.S. Tennis Association's announcement last week that Donald Young will be training with Nick Bollettieri at his academy may have been slightly overstated. Young has had a standing invitation to work with the development guru and plans to spend a few days at the academy next week but also is considering playing the Challenger event in Bradenton to get more matches on clay before he heads to Europe.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.

Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com.