The big questions posed in the beginning of the clay court season was whether or not Rafael Nadal would resume his dominance and who would be able to derail him? So far, the answer to the former is a straight-forward yes and the answer to the latter is no one.
There are four big events during the clay season: Monte Carlo, Rome, and Madrid Masters, and the French Open. Two of them have been played out already and Nadal walked away with the Monte Carlo and Rome titles having dropped only one set. And by skipping the Barcelona tournament, Nadal has put himself in prime position to sweep the last two big events and complete the greatest clay season of all time.
But Nadal is on the fence about playing in Madrid. I know it’s all about the healthy approach for him, but I believe playing Madrid would not hurt him as much as some people might think. Last year he reached the finals after already winning three other clay tournaments despite dealing with physical and emotional problems. This year, the emotions seem to be in check and his knees seem to be in check. He has a week to rest, too, and he has not spent nearly as much time on the court this year as in previous years.
I know another big argument against Madrid is that the conditions don’t help with preparations for the French. While this may be true, I don’t see it as a serious issue for Nadal. Federer won Madrid and the French last year, is Nadal really incapable of doing the same? Nadal is the overwhelming favorite for Paris no matter what his decision regarding Madrid is.
After winning in Rome, Nadal said, “I didn’t play at the level I did in Monte Carlo, but I’m still winning and that’s the important thing. I’m probably more happy winning without playing (my) best. It was more of a mental thing.”
Nadal’s below-Monte-Carlo-level is still head and shoulders above the rest of the field. Ernests Gulbis provided Nadal with a stern test in the semifinals but Nadal upped his game when it mattered most and showed why he’s the most mentally tough player on tour. But it’s nice to see Nadal is always focused on improving and playing better.
In my preview for the clay season, I listed several players who could potentially challenge Nadal on his turf. Fernando Verdasco has been the second most successful player on clay, but Nadal showed in the Monte Carlo final that Verdasco has a ways to go before he can knock out Nadal. David Ferrer got a good number of games in the Rome final but he was never in a position to actually take the match.
Novak Djokovic, who I thought would be Nadal’s biggest threat, is still trying to regain his composure. His serve is still up and down, but the rest of his game is getting better. His problem, now, is regaining his confidence on the big points. Tennis-wise, him and Verdasco were almost equal in their quarterfinal in Rome, but Verdasco was mentally tougher.
Andy Murray finally won a match after going 0-3 in since Indian Wells, but he still has some mental cobwebs to shake off and his clay game could use some work.
Juan Carlos Ferrero had a good Latin clay swing but he has disappointed so far. A loss to Nadal in Monte Carlo isn’t a bad result but he got crushed by qualifier Santiago Giraldo in the first round of Rome, winning only three games. Another prominent clay courter who has yet to win a match is the current number one, Roger Federer. Saying he hasn’t won a match makes things seem worse than they really are considering he’s only played one match on clay, but it was his second straight loss in general.
Federer has a chance to get a few matches under his belt in Estoril this week, but things don’t look great for the current French Open champ. He needs to groove himself into form before he finds himself holding another plate next to Nadal eating his trophy.
There’s also Nadal-killer Robin Soderling who played a good tournament in Barcelona but then got routed by Stanislas Wawrinka in Rome. Apparently he’s struggling with some physical ailments but he should be in shape by the time the French rolls around.
Based on the way things have played out so far, both Madrid and the French are fairly wide open in regards to who will get to lose to Nadal in the finals. I can’t foresee anyone toppling him unless his knees suddenly give out. If Nadal doesn’t play Madrid, I think Verdasco is the next in line to take the title. At the French, if not Nadal, then probably Federer. I just hope a few more players can push Nadal and produce some classic matches.
Funniest Quote: “But his level is now down just a bit and others are starting to get confidence and the belief that they have a chance to beat him,” said Djokovic regarding Nadal.
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