Clay season heats up next week

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The first heavy duty clay-court event of the 2005 season will commence Monday when the Monte-Carlo Masters swings into action at the prestigious Monte-Carlo Country Club.

The Monte-Carlo tournament will go on as scheduled, but officials decided to cancel other festivities surrounding the event following the death of Price Rainier III, Monaco's longest-reigning monarch who passed away Wednesday at the age of 81. Rainier's Grimaldi family dynasty has been in power since 1297.

Monte-Carlo, of course, serves as one of the many tuneups for the French Open, which gets underway in less than seven weeks in Paris.

Monte-Carlo marks the third of nine Masters Series events this year, as the great Roger Federer already captured the first two -- the Pacific Life Open at Indian Wells and the Nasdaq-100 Open in Miami -- in back-to-back fashion over the past few weeks.

Guillermo Coria
The 2004 French Open runner-up Coria was last year's titlist in Monte-Carlo.
Speedy Argentine Guillermo Coria, following a runner-up finish in 2003, prevailed in Monte-Carlo a year ago by beating German Rainer Schuettler in the final. Coria went on to post a runner-up finish to Gaston Gaudio in last year's all-Argentine Roland Garros title match.

The Monte-Carlo favorites right now appear to be Federer, rapidly-rising Spaniard Rafael Nadal, Gaudio and Coria. The 18-year-old Nadal swiped the first two sets from the mighty Federer in the Miami final last week before the sublime Swiss charged back for a clutch five-set victory at Crandon Park. Both Gaudio and Nadal have already pocketed a pair of clay-court crowns this year, with Gaudio titling in Vina del Mar and Buenos Aires and Nadal coming out on top in Costa do Sauipe and Acapulco.

The last four Monte-Carlo champions have gone on to enjoy a great deal of success at the French Open, as Gustavo "Guga" Kuerten went on to capture Roland Garros after claiming Monte-Carlo in 2001; Juan Carlos Ferrero advanced to the French final after prevailing in MC in 2002; Ferrero ran the table at RG after picking up a second straight MC title in 2003; and Coria reached the French finale after securing his MC Masters shield last season.

The two-time winners Kuerten and Ferrero will try to become the fourth player to capture Monte-Carlo in the Open Era. Ilie Nastase (1971,1972,1973), Bjorn Borg (1977,1979,1980) and Thomas Muster (1992, 1995, 1996) are the only performers to corral a trio of titles in the tiny principality of Monaco.

The reigning Wimbledon, U.S. Open and Masters Cup champion Federer, Nadal, Gaudio and Coria are expected to be joined in this year's field by the likes of Andy Roddick, Aussie Open champ Marat Safin, 1998 MC winner Carlos Moya, Tim Henman and the legendary Andre Agassi.

Needless to say, don't be surprised when you see Spaniards and Argentines piling up titles over the next several weeks, as they, of course, excel on the red clay.

The next clay-court Masters Series event will commence in Rome the first week of May.

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