Nadal hungry to master Monte Carlo

The Roland Garros Series, aka the European clay-court circuit, begins in earnest Monday in Monte Carlo, and this year it's as noteworthy for who is absent as for who is playing. Five of the ATP's top 10 are skipping the event (either by choice or because of injury), but that can be viewed as something like a course correction.

Let's face it, Monte Carlo Rolex Masters is a throwback event, almost to the point of being cringe worthy. The Monte Carlo Country Club is an exclusive, private club -- a beautiful facility in a stunning location, no doubt about it. Is there still room in tennis for that kind of setup? You bet, at least when the local big money wants it that way, and remember that Monaco is nominally ruled by a Prince, not some garden-variety crooked politician.

The club does go a little overboard on the Robin Leachy stuff: What's with this "champagne" ticket package, and what other tournament tries to lure a day-tripper with a deal that includes a gourmet lunch, a tournament souvenir, and "one aperitif." (What's an "aperitif" anyway, some kind of punctuation mark?)

In my experience (although it's been some time since I've been at the tournament), there isn't an event where the players, no matter how well they're treated, seem like so many props brought in for the amusement of the idle rich. Now that Roger Federer, (who mailed in a desultory performance last year and was gone before could say Monegasque) is one of that lot (except for that "idle" bit) he apparently can do without the goody bag.

I'm shedding no tears over the MCCC's seeming fall from grace, although it's good to keep in mind that it's a long season on clay, and the top players can now afford to prioritize. Also, in all fairness, Juan Martin del Potro, Robin Soderling and Nikolay Davydenko (three of the MIA stars) are out with injury -- it's not like they're thumbing their noses at a Masters 1000 because they're loath to be grunting and grinding while some dude in aviator shades is busy talking on his cell phone.

And at the end of the day, there's still a ton of buff Spanish and South American guys who have been grinding (their teeth, mostly) through the hard-court season, just dying to get back to the comforts of red clay.

Five of the top 10 missing might seem to have promotional disaster written all over it, but the reality is that among the five who did show up, four can be considered supporting cast anyway. This tournament would probably be just fine, thank you, if nine of the top 10 were absent -- as long as Rafael Nadal was in the draw.

Nadal, the champion for the past five years running, has hauled more money out of Monte Carlo than an accomplished card cheat. He'll be trying to establish an Open era record by winning the same title six years in a row. Ordinarily, you might call this a gimme for Nadal. But the astonishing fact is that the scourge of clay has won exactly one tournament in the past 11 months.

You know what that means. He's vulnerable; his confidence is shaken; he hears footsteps, right? Wrong. He's hungry. And he's not going to be satisfied with a gourmet lunch, a tournament souvenir, and one aperitif.