The claycourt season has begun, and we all know what that means: it's time for one man to clean up the titles like nobody's business. Since 2005, Rafael Nadal has dominated clay in a way that no other tennis player has ever dominated anything, and it's hard to imagine 2019 being any different.
The year's first claycourt Masters will take place in the picturesque Monte Carlo Country Club, and on paper it has a pretty stacked field despite the fact that it's not a mandatory tournament. While Roger Federer continues to omit the event from his schedule, pretty much every other big name is present in the draw.
So which of those poor souls is going to be brave enough to try and wrest the trophy from Nadal's grasp? Here's a quick break-down of the draw:
First quarter: Is the World No. 1 ready to start winning again?
Novak Djokovic has had a puzzling start to 2019. While he was borderline invincible at the Australian Open, he hasn't looked anything like the world's best player at the other tournaments. He has even taken to blaming mysterious 'things off the court' for his losses, making many wonder whether he'd be better off giving up the post of ATP Player Council President.
Djokovic won't get much time to tune out those off-court problems in Monte Carlo, as he is likely to run into his Indian Wells conqueror Philipp Kohlschreiber first up. The German can certainly play on clay, and will fancy his chances against the distracted Serb.
Diego Schwartzman or Kyle Edmund could be Djokovic's third round opponent, and Stefanos Tsitsipas his quarter-final foe. Tsitsipas did well in the claycourt season last year, reaching the final in Barcelona, and he has a fairly manageable draw here; Daniil Medvedev in the third round sounds like his only significant challenger.
Quarter-final prediction: Novak Djokovic def. Stefanos Tsitsipas
Dark horse: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who could play Edmund or Schwartzman in the second round
First-round match to watch: Kyle Edmund vs Diego Schwartzman
Second quarter: Who is the brawniest of them all?
Newly-crowned Masters champion Dominic Thiem is the top seed in this quarter, and ordinarily would have been considered the presumptive favourite to come out of it unscathed. But if 'unscathed' means avoiding any kind of bruises along the way, then the Austrian is in for a rude shock: practically every other player here can hit the ball as violently as he himself can.
Karen Khachanov, Nikoloz Basilashvili, Martin Klizan and Marton Fucsovics are all present in this quarter, and they can all bring the heat with their groundstrokes. Thiem will likely have to face Klizan in the second round and one of the other three in the quarter-final, so the Monte Carlo spectators should brace themselves for some high-octane battles of brute force.
Also here is David Goffin, who could face Thiem in the third round. The Belgian has struggled to find his rhythm throughout 2019 but he'll hope that clay, where he usually does well, brings some respite.
Quarter-final prediction: Dominic Thiem def. Nikoloz Basilashvili
Dark horse: Marton Fucsovics
First-round match to watch: Nikoloz Basilashvili vs Marton Fucsovics
Third quarter: The eclectic group
There's something for every kind of style aficionado in this quarter. The on-the-rise offense of Kei Nishikori, the all-court proficiency of Felix Auger-Aliassime and Alexander Zverev, the muscular topspin of Fernando Verdasco, the serve-and-volley aggression of Pierre-Hugues Herbert, the counterpunching skills of Borna Coric and Jaume Munar, the rote consistency of Gilles Simon and Hubert Hurkacz, and the outlandish variations of Fabio Fognini " you name a style, and you've got it here.
Zverev would have been expected to come through this section, considering his claycourt success in the last two years. But right now he is in the middle of a tailspin so severe that he can't even reach the quarterfinals of 250 tournaments " he lost to Munar in the Marrakech third round this week.
Zverev is slated to meet Auger-Aliassime in the second round here and possibly Fognini in the third round, but it is unclear whether the German is in good enough shape to even reach that far. If he stumbles, then Coric and Nishikori would be best placed to take advantage.
Quarter-final prediction: Borna Coric def. Auger-Aliassime
Dark horse: Jaume Munar
First-round match to watch: Borna Coric vs Hubert Hurkacz
Fourth quarter: Should the others even bother to turn up?
On the face of it, this should be a mere formality for Nadal. He has won the tournament a jaw-dropping 11 times, and has established a stranglehold on the principality so powerful that it seems sacrilegious to even suggest any player can defeat him here.
But he does have a slightly challenging potential second-round opponent in Roberto Bautista Agut, who defeated Djokovic in Miami last month and looks perfectly at home on clay. Now usually even an in-form claycourt expert wouldn't have been a considered a threat to Nadal at Monte Carlo, but considering he is returning from (yet another) injury, things could possibly get a little tricky against his countryman.
His path looks quite straightforward after that: Grigor Dimitrov, Denis Shapovalov or Matteo Berrettini in the third round and Marin Cilic, Stan Wawrinka, Lucas Pouille or Marco Cecchinato in the quarter-final. Quite a few of these players are uncomfortable on clay, and none are ideal matchups for Nadal on the surface, so it's hard to imagine any of them giving the King of Clay much trouble.
Quarter-final prediction: Rafael Nadal def. Stan Wawrinka
Dark horse: Roberto Bautista Agut
First-round match to watch: Stan Wawrinka vs Lucas Pouille
Semifinal predictions: Dominic Thiem def. Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal def. Borna Coric
Final prediction: Rafael Nadal def. Dominic Thiem