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Monte Carlo kingpin Nadal looks a sure bet as rested Murray keeps cards close to his chest

As the Monte Carlo Masters opened for business yesterday, Centre Court was barely half full.

The real action was at the back of the site, where hundreds of people were queuing, jostling, crying even, in their desperation to climb onto the narrow gantry overlooking Rafael Nadal's practice session.

Monaco is Nadal's precinct, a 500-acre monument to his phenomenal talent and drive. The odds are that, in a week's time, he will be celebrating his ninth successive title here on the Riviera. For purposes of comparison, nobody else has strung out a sequence of more than six consecutive victories at any ATP event in the world.

The tough break for Andy Murray is that, despite coming in as the No 2 seed, he has still wound up in Nadal's half of the draw. This is one tournament where you would rather be looking at a potential semi-final against Novak Djokovic, and all the more so after Djokovic sprained his ankle last week playing for Serbia in the Davis Cup.

Although the world No 1 seemed in good spirits during a short press conference yesterday – and certainly far more upbeat than when he burst into tears after suffering that injury in Idaho – he dodged the central question of whether he will be taking up his place at the top of the draw.

"I can't 100pc guarantee I will be on the court on Wednesday," said Djokovic. "I have to be realistic and see if, when I push myself to the limit in practice, I suffer any discomfort. In order to compete at such a high level I need to be at 100pc. I'll decide on Tuesday at the latest (because) I should at least give time to another player if I don't play."

As for Murray, he took the safe option of skipping Great Britain's Davis Cup tie against Russia in order to prepare for his least favourite part of the season – the European clay-court stretch. The upshot is that he comes into Monte Carlo well rested and free of the chronic injury worries that were restricting him 12 months ago.

"I had had a problem with my back from the start of the year," said Murray, when asked about his underachievement on clay in 2012. "It was just getting worse. I couldn't take it any more. So that was when I had to take a couple of weeks off.

"But my back's not been affecting the way I play matches since the grass-court season. I have felt better over the last few days than I did coming into Monte Carlo last year."

The high bounces and sliding movements of clay-court tennis do not sit easily with Murray, whose earliest tennis memories date back to the fast indoor courts in Stirling.

He did spent 18 months in his teens at the Sanchez-Casal Academy in Barcelona, where clay was the primary surface, but the red dust never quite seeped into his soul.

Murray has a first-round bye here but will probably open his campaign against Dutchman Robin Haase tomorrow.

He received good news yesterday from the US: his brother Jamie won the Houston Open doubles title late on Saturday night with Australian partner John Peers, beating top seeds Bob and Mike Bryan in the final. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent