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Tennis

ATP has a lot to offer in clay buildup, but is anybody watching?

Photo: Lionel Cironneau/AP

A full spring of Novak Djokovic (left) and Rafael Nadal squaring off is just one intriguing storyline.

Someone very important at ESPN has examined today's tennis landscape and concluded, "Nobody cares."

It's a curious notion, given the network's massive commitment to the majors, but it was undeniably present over the weekend. Monte Carlo is one of the most prestigious events on the men's tour, and Sunday's final was nothing short of a dream: Rafael Nadal vs. Novak Djokovic. Stuck in Denver on a basketball assignment, I was unable to catch Tennis Channel's telecast, so I watched the entire prime-time SportsCenter -- 90 minutes' worth -- hoping to get just a glimpse of this eternally wondrous matchup.

Nothing. Nary a clip, nor even the score. As the anchors signed off, with time only for a few short comments in passing, one of them mentioned that Djokovic had ended Nadal's eight-year command of the tournament. Have a nice evening.

What does it mean to be a devoted tennis fan these days? I feel like we're all a bunch of smokers, huddled in a small room where we won't bother any of the normal people. It's downright uncool these days to generate real passion for any important stop on either tour. Like, "Really? You don't have anything better to do?"

Still, we're out there, and if you've read this far, you're probably on board. Wouldn't you agree that the buildup to the French Open, and the tournament itself, will be something to behold?

Djokovic took the court on Sunday as a Monte Carlo resident, someone who spends a lot of time at the club, who rightfully believes it should be his event. He'd never blurt that out in public, not with Nadal owning a 46-match winning streak, but when you add that component to the fact that Djokovic plays Nadal on even terms anywhere in the world, physically and mentally, it makes for a titanic confrontation.

What we learned, in various match accounts, is that a touch of moisture made the court play slower than usual. Nadal wasn't able to pound away successfully at Djokovic's backhand, and perhaps he went to that shot too often instead of drilling his classic inside-out forehand to the other corner. Djokovic was taking the ball early and blasting away in tandem with his phenomenal return of service and defensive prowess. Like Grigor Dimitrov before him (in the quarterfinals), Djokovic repeatedly used the drop shot to gain control of points against Nadal. So those are some of the basics.

It was most interesting, however, to read that Nadal appeared visibly disheartened by the outcome, if only for a moment, and it brought to mind the clay-court season of 2011. That's when Djokovic essentially took command of the tour, knocking off Nadal in Madrid and Rome (Roger Federer beat Djokovic at the French), a plainly shocking development. Nadal, in a philosophical mood, told reporters that he had learned to "enjoy the suffering" and savor the process, whatever it may entail, in returning to the top.

NGUYEN: Djokovic leads Report Card

So much has happened since then, but after spending seven months off the tour to rehabilitate his troublesome knee, Nadal has taken a more shortsighted look at life. He has suffered and will suffer again. Most of his opponents continue to see him as an unstoppable force, but that will not last forever. Nadal knows his tennis clock is ticking. He wants to defend his French Open title in the worst way, and to him, the brutally hard courts of the U.S. summer circuit seem ages away.

So now it's on to Barcelona, with a less-than-elite field, and eventually the Masters 1000 events in Madrid (May 5-12) and Rome (May 12-19). Here are some of the other intriguing characters worth watching:

Dimitrov: He was fabulous in that quarterfinal against Nadal, winning the second set 6-2 and giving the Spaniard a legitimate scare before having to deal with a very ill-timed episode of cramps. "Very aggressive and very good technique," Nadal said afterward. "A complete player. He's the present and the future."

We won't know for certain until Dimitrov learns how to finish off a big match against the great ones, but it's just possible that he'll move to the forefront of the so-called "next generation." It's clear that you count on Bernard Tomic, Alexandr Dolgopolov, Ryan Harrison and Kei Nishikori at your peril. Milos Raonic has the goods, but not the results. It will be fascinating to watch if Dimitrov strikes a fine balance between controlled emotions and exceptional talent.

Andy Murray: There's something about Stanislas Wawrinka that brings out the worst in Murray. It was after a third-round match at the 2010 U.S. Open that John McEnroe told his CBS audience, "There were times when Murray wasn't even trying out there. He looked like he didn't want to be there." The latest chapter was a 6-1, 6-2 loss to Wawrinka in Monte Carlo, requiring all of 58 minutes. A frustrated Murray spent most of the match on edge.

He will recover, because he always does, and he'll likely post some huge wins on clay. While we're waiting, how about some props for Wawrinka, and the fact that a really solid, one-handed backhand can still do a lot of damage?

Federer: No explanation necessary. He's lurking at the moment, resting up for Madrid, wisely saving his energy for a time he can strike with full force and remind everyone what the greatest player of the Open Era looks like.

John Isner: People went overboard when Isner won the U.S. Clay Court Championships in Houston. It was a terrific win, no doubt, but that tournament offers not the slightest hint what's to come on the European circuit. Andy Roddick won Houston three times. Big-serving Ivo Karlovic even won it once (2007). Look more to Monte Carlo, where Isner lost to Ernests Gulbis in the first round, for some insight into his clay-court season. Last year, by the end of the French Open, he was questioning his very worth as a tennis player.

Gulbis: My goodness, what a punk. And what a show. It's can't-miss theater when he takes the court, for you're likely to get a combination of mind-blowing ability and preposterous behavior (Gulbis slammed his racket against the umpire's chair in Monte Carlo, sat down for a pouting spell and drew a reprimand from opponent Juan Monaco). He really should stop acting like a spoiled kid and get it together, because his results indicate something big to come.

WERTHEIM: Djokovic's title adds more intrigue to ATP

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