As the ATP tour enters the month of April, the focus shifts from the US hard courts to the European clay. Long rallies, baseline duels, and a test of grit and the ability to grind become the order of the day. Here, we look at how the top trio of Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer might go in the lead-up to the second Grand Slam of the year.
With one Grand Slam, three Masters 1000s, one ATP 500, and a host of ATP 250s over the course of approximately ten weeks or so, the clay court season has a lot to offer in terms of exhilarating tennis, variety of venues, ATP ranking points, and the agonies and ecstasies for the players and their fans alike.
The clay court season for most of the last decade and a half has been dominated by someone who’s rightly known as the King of Clay – Rafael Nadal.
While he often begins as the favorite, and sometimes begins with a cloud of uncertainty around his fitness, he almost always has run away as the leader of the pack on the clay by a distance. With a semi-final withdrawal at the Indian Wells Masters and a no-show at the Miami Masters, there is again a cloud of uncertainty around his fitness, but there also remains the notion that he will likely be healthy for the clay and start as the favorite over all others.
Nadal has an impressive 46 titles across these five tournaments with 11 titles at each of the French Open, Monte Carlo and Barcelona. With Nadal (fitness pending) beginning as the strong favorite on the clay, the last few seasons have evidenced a few others as worthy challengers and the gap may get even closer this time around.
Among the individuals who can be a stern opposition to Nadal on the clay, there is no one more capable than arch rival and world number one, Novak Djokovic.
Djokovic has not only won the French Open in 2016, but has also beaten Rafael Nadal at each of the three Masters 1000s to claim titles this decade. The Serb remains the only player to be a strong contender against Nadal on clay, and remains one of two players to have beaten him at Roland Garros, where Nadal has an 86-2 win/loss record.
After being plagued with injuries and having had an indifferent 2017 and first half of 2018, Djokovic has made a strong comeback winning the last three majors. A strong Australian Open campaign this January left him as an obvious favorite for the rest of the season.
While early exits at both Sunshine Masters in March has left one wondering what the reason for the glitch was, there is every reason to believe that the upcoming clay season will be a mouth-watering battle between Nadal and Djokovic for supremacy.
The big news for clay this year remains the much talked about return of Roger Federer. After having an injury hit clay court swing of 2016, and not participating on the clay in 2017 and 2018, reports state that Federer will play at the Madrid Masters and the French Open this year.
Returning to play on clay after a while, it will be interesting to see what sort of form he has and what his results are like.
Although not his favorite surface, Federer has won the French Open in 2009, and remains a multiple time French Open finalist with strong showings on the clay Masters 1000s as well.
While he does not start as a favorite on the surface, one cannot rule out the maestro’s genius on any surface at any age.
With a strong last six weeks for him with three finals and two titles, Federer has been in excellent form of late. The Swiss will want to ensure he does not stretch himself more than necessary on clay however, as he would like to remain fresh for the grass court season that follows right after.
With a lot of talent, experience and form going for many on the circuit opening one to a realm of possibilities, the highlight of this swing of the tennis season will still more likely than not be a showdown between three of the greatest players of all time, Nadal, Djokovic and Federer with very little to chose from between the first two names.
Expecting an 18th Grand Slam and a 12th French Open title for the King of clay, Rafael Nadal.
For Part II of our Clay Court Swing Preview, click here.