Tennis is one of those sports that has never-ending dilemmas that simply have no solution. The clay season officially began yesterday. Unlike the brief Latin swing after the Australian Open, there will be no overlapping hard court events.
So what’s the dilemma? The majority of fans really don’t care about the 250 events like the ones in Houston and Casablanca. There are very few, if any, players in the top 15 who will partake in these events. Also, we all just had a month full of Masters and I’m sure there are plenty of us who would like to digest the events, even if just for a week. But 99% of the tour didn’t play well or even play at all in Indian Wells or Miami, so they’re just itching to play another event. How do you make fans care about them? Unfortunately, you don’t.
But since this is the official start, I want to preview what we should anticipate over the next two months. The first big event starts next week in Monte Carlo. Although it is now optional, with Andy Murray taking wild card (and possibly Roger Federer), the field is stacked with most of the top players. There are a surprising amount of questions leading into this year’s clay season, all of them dealing with Rafael Nadal.
First, will the unpredictability of the hard court results ever translate onto the clay? In other words, will Nadal lose consistently enough to allow other players to share the spoils? It’s tough to say considering Nadal’s current state of mind seems fragile, but no. Monte Carlo’s clay, for example, suits Nadal better than almost any other clay out there. He’s the five-time defending champion there and I expect it to be the place where he snaps his title-drought.
But Nadal is still questionable. The King of Clay for the last five years is struggling mentally for the first time in his career. Known to never say die and play every point as if it were his last, Nadal has been showing cracks. I mentioned in my previous post that Nadal has lost three time this year after winning the first set. His body language is as poor as it has ever been and he had a little tantrum during a change over against Andy Roddick in Miami. So who is going to beat Nadal?
Nadal is an unbelievable 181-16 on clay in his career. That is a mind blowing statistic every way you look at it. Since becoming the clay king, he’s only lost to Federer (twice), Juan Carlos Ferrero, and Robin Soderling. So which of these guys is going to beat Nadal again? And will this list increase?
I’ve watched Nadal a lot over the years and I’ve caught some replays in recent months, too. There are very few players out there who can legitimately rally with and even bother Nadal on clay. Most recently, Novak Djokovic has been troubling Nadal on clay. He can rally with for large periods of time and he is also capable of pushing Nadal back, something that’s incredibly hard to do on clay. David Ferrer is also capable of rallying with Nadal but he doesn’t have the weapons to hit Nadal off the court. Tomas Berdych was giving Nadal all sorts of trouble in the first set of their Davis Cup encounter last year before Nadal ran away with the match.
Based on form and Nadal’s obvious hunger to get back to the top, he will suffer 0-1 losses. The only loss could be if he decides to play in Madrid again. He will probably be fatigued from winning everything else and will go down to either Djokovic or Federer. Ferrer doesn’t have the weapons and Nadal is going to want revenge if he runs into Soderling. Ferrero may have played well against a weaker field during the Latin swing but Nadal is a whole different animal.
If Nadal were to falter, however, I believe Djokovic would pick up the spoils. Despite the fact that both of them performed poorly at last year’s French Open, they were the best two clay courters last season. I wouldn’t say Federer is simply “third,” but he’s more of an enigma. If he plays well, only Nadal can beat him. But if he plays so-so, he can suffer losses to anyone. I think we will see more Nadal-Djokovic clashes just like last year and, if Djokovic pushes hard enough while Nadal is still fragile, he could finally get a win.
I think a match between Juan Martin del Potro and Nadal could be considered the most anticipated match of the season. Del Potro has the game to blast Nadal off the court but Nadal will definitely be looking to best the Argentine after that crushing defeat at the US Open. Unfortunately, Del Potro is still nursing and injury and will be a question mark whenever he plays.
Nikolay Davydenko can also trouble Nadal and make plenty of noise on clay but he might be out for the entire season because of a broken wrist. Andy Murray is still developing his feet on clay but, as long as he gets his focus back, will continue to improve and could be a real factor by the time the French Open comes around. Nadal said Murray could one day win the French but that’s a premature statement as far as I’m concerned. Murray needs some big clay court wins first but it wouldn’t be hard to imagine him getting some this year.
As for the French Open, it is too early and too tough to call. I’ll wait until at least Monte Carlo to declare any favorites.
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