With the clay-court swing beginning from April, we can expect a lot more surprises than one does on other surfaces despite the presence of the King of Clay, Rafael Nadal. In this piece, one looks at the challengers, the players who could challenge the Big Three of tennis in the lead-up to the 2019 French Open.
Looking ahead to the season, two names that comes to mind to watch out for are Austrian Dominic Thiem and German Alexander Zverev. Both have shown what they are capable of on the clay in recent seasons.
The Austrian also defeated Djokovic at the 2017 French Open making the semi-finals that year, and was the runner-up at the Open in 2018.
Thiem will be hoping to win one of the premier clay tournaments this part of the season, this year. Stan Wawrinka has shown what he is capable of on the clay winning the 2015 French Open and being runner-up in 2017.
However, as he is still returning from his knee injury lay-off, it is yet to be determined how much of a contender he can be. As he moves from strength to strength, one can never rule him out on the clay (or anywhere), but it is unlikely to see him winning premier tournaments this clay court season, given the strength of the field.
Two names that have done considerably well on the clay in years past are Kei Nishikori and Gael Monfils.
Both have resurrected themselves in the last six-none months and assuming they can continue their strong run, they will be ones to watch out for in the week to come.
Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut is another clay court name to monitor closely. Agut has been in good form in 2019, defeating Novak Djokovic twice already after having gotten the better of an obviously injured Andy Murray at the Australian Open as well.
Belgian David Goffin has a game well-suited to the surface, but his form and fitness of late has raised question marks. On the other hand, veteran David Ferrer, a clay court specialist, will be retiring after the Madrid Masters and it will be satisfying to see him go out with a fight on his favorite surface.
The talk of the circuit in recent times continues to be the next generation of stars, often referred to as ‘Next Gen’. While many have impressed and shown what they are capable of, it will be interesting to see how they perform on the clay.
Stefanos Tsitsipas made a run to the Barcelona ATP 500 final in 2018 and will hope to perform similarly, and better, this season. Borna Coric has a game well suited to the surface and will be one to look out for.
Russians Daniil Medvedev and Karen Khachanov have shown both promise and results in recent times, and along with the three North American young brigade Denis Shapovalov, Frances Tiafoe and Felix Auger Aliassime, will be hoping to keep the trend going.
There remain many others in what has become a field of increasing parity capable of springing surprises on the clay and this makes for an exciting season to look forward to, yet once again.The clay court season gets started at Marrakech and Houston with the ATP 250s this week, and looks to gain considerable momentum by the following week with the Monte Carlo Masters 1000, and there will be no looking back from there on.
The big question is if these players outside the Big Three can push the trio of Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer on a surface that does spring up few surprises at times.