Reem Abulleil looks at the main storylines to follow this clay-court swing.
The ATP’s clay season commenced on Monday with tournaments in Marrakech and Houston and will kick off in earnest next week when the tour’s stars head to Monte Carlo for the third Masters 1000 event of the season.
For the next eight weeks, players will be sliding and grinding on the red dirt hoping to fight over any points Rafael Nadal chooses to leave behind.
Nadal, whose dominance on clay cannot be put into words or numbers, won Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Madrid and Roland Garros last season, and lost in the Rome quarter-finals to fall just three victories short of a perfect five-tournament clay sweep.
The Mallorcan world No. 1 returned from a hip injury break last weekend to win his two singles rubbers and help Spain defeat Germany 3-2 in the Davis Cup quarter-finals in Valencia. Those triumphs of course came on clay.
For a second straight year, Roger Federer has opted out of competing on the red dirt, while Andy Murray is still recovering from hip surgery and won’t return before the grass season.
Here are some of the main storylines to follow in this upcoming clay-court swing…
He’s only played seven matches this season and has been dealing with physical concerns but Nadal’s pair of victories in Valencia last weekend, over Germany’s world No. 4 Alexander Zverev and Philipp Kohlschreiber have already got people talking about ‘La Undécima’.
Last year, an emotional Nadal lifted a record-extending 10th Roland Garros title, dropping just 35 games across the seven matches he won to secure ‘La Décima’.
It was his last French Open with his uncle Toni in his corner – the Spanish coach stopped being his nephew’s traveling coach at the end of 2017 – and it made Nadal the first-ever man and second player in history to win 10 or more trophies at the same Grand Slam (only Margaret Court has won 11, at the Australian Open).
It also ended a three-year Slam drought for him and helped him get back to No. 1 in the world a couple of months later.
It’s 10 months later and Nadal is once again ready for his assault on the clay-court season, with Roland Garros number 11 firmly in his sights.
“For me the nerves, the adrenaline that I feel when I play in this court is impossible to compare to other feelings. It’s the most important event in my career without a doubt,” Nadal said on court after claiming his 10th French Open last year.
The 31-year-old is a stunning 98-2 win-loss at Roland Garros and has won 105 out of 107 best-of-five matches on clay. He’s also won 91.8 per cent of all his contests on the surface throughout his career.
With Federer and Murray out of the picture this upcoming stretch, last year’s runner-up Stan Wawrinka still regaining fitness after knee surgery, and Novak Djokovic searching for form, Nadal seemingly has less obstacles in his way in Paris.
If a healthy Nadal touches down in the French capital next month, an 11th Roland Garros – and 17th Grand Slam trophy – are a more than likely conclusion.
Djokovic’s latest attempt to resuscitate his beast mode has seen him seek help from his ex-coach Marian Vajda, who has been helping him prepare for the clay in Marbella the past few days and will accompany the Serb at the Monte Carlo Masters next week.
The 12-time Grand Slam champion, who had elbow surgery in February and is struggling for confidence and form, parted ways with Vajda 12 months ago, but has since hired and fired his replacements, Andre Agassi and Radek Stepanek.
While no long-term commitment has been arranged between Djokovic and Vajda, it’s fair to assume that any positive results for the world No. 13 at the moment could lead to a formal reunion between the pair. Djokovic is 3-3 win-loss this season and is coming off opening round defeats in both Indian Wells and Miami.
Could help from a former coach and confidante like Vajda, who worked with Djokovic from 2006 to 2017, turn things around for the ex-world No. 1?
Judging from the way Djokovic has been describing his struggles, it doesn’t look like it’s going to be that simple.
NADAL v THIEM, THE SEQUEL?
Last year, one match-up rose above the rest throughout the clay swing: Rafael Nadal v Dominic Thiem. The duo squared off in the Barcelona and Madrid finals, the Rome quarters and the Roland Garros semis, with Nadal triumphing in three of those four meetings.
“It was really nice to play him four times, I think it was great, almost four tournaments in a row. For sure I hope that it’s the same this year because if I play him on clay that means that I go deep in the tournaments. He will go for sure deep anyway because he’s Rafa but I have to watch out that I can maybe repeat it,” Thiem told me in Abu Dhabi ahead of the start of this 2018 season.
“It was a really great clay-court season, there I was putting the base for all the good ranking, for all the London thing and everything so of course I try to play as successful as I did.”
Nadal and Thiem have played each other a total of seven times (the Spaniard leads the head-to-head 5-2), all of which have come on clay.
Seven of Thiem’s nine career titles were won on the red dirt and the 24-year-old is already a two-time Roland Garros semi-finalist (in 2016 and 2017).
The Austrian world No. 7 has been Nadal’s biggest competition on the surface recently but like the Spaniard, Thiem is coming off an injury problem having rolled his ankle at Indian Wells last month, which forced him out of Miami. He’s been back training though and should be all set for another tug of war with Nadal these next few weeks.
THE TOP SPOT
Anything short of a perfect clay campaign could see Nadal lose his No. 1 ranking once again to Federer. Nadal is exactly 100 points ahead of the Swiss in the world rankings and has 4,680 points to defend on the red dirt these next two months. Just like Nadal took back the top spot from Federer without swinging a racquet in March, the pair can swap positions again even with Federer taking a break.
Up to No. 28 in the world and rising, 21-year-old Borna Coric is enjoying a solid 2018 that saw him make the quarter-finals or better in four tournaments so far this season, including a semi-final showing in Indian Wells and a last-eight outing in Miami.
While hard courts look like a more natural fit for the talented Croat’s game, Coric actually captured his first and only career title on clay in Marrakech 12 months ago, before he went on to upset a then-world No. 1 Andy Murray on the red dirt in Madrid.
Coric’s winning percentage is the highest on clay (56%), compared to his success rate on hard courts (50%) and grass (22%), and based on the form we’ve seen from him during the opening Masters 1000 events of the season, we can expect more good things from the Dubai resident these next eight weeks.
OTHERS TO WATCH
With Nadal facing little to no competition from his fellow ‘Big Five’ members this clay stretch, there is room for others to step up to the plate and try and do what Thiem did this time last year.
Alexander Zverev was poor in his straight-sets defeat to Nadal in Davis Cup on Sunday but he did make the Miami final 10 days ago and has shown he can perform well on clay, having won Rome last season. Best-of-five continues to be a challenge for him, but he can certainly contend for titles in the build-up to Roland Garros.
David Goffin was so unlucky last year when his foot got caught in the tarp behind the baseline at the 2017 French Open and got injured, especially that he was considered a real threat to the field. More bad luck saw the Belgian suffer a freak eye injury in Rotterdam in February but he returned to action in Miami and should be ready for the clay.
ANY HOME HOPES IN PARIS?
France’s French Open title drought in men’s singles has been going on since Yannick Noah’s success in 1983 and it’s highly unlikely it ends this June. But if we’d have to pick a Frenchman to look out for this clay swing they would have to be Lucas Pouille and Gael Monfils.
Pouille, ranked No. 11 this week, had a huge February, making three finals in four tournaments, but then flopped in Indian Wells and Miami.
He bounced back with big battling wins over Andreas Seppi and Fabio Fognini in Davis Cup last weekend on clay in Genoa, which could prove to be a strong boost for him. The 24-year-old Pouille was the only man to win titles on clay, hard courts and grass last season, and is a two-time Grand Slam quarter-finalist.
As for Monfils, it’s always a case of one step forward and two steps backwards for the athletic yet perennially injured showman. He won Doha to start the year but hasn’t really made an impression since. In Indian Wells, he had two good wins over Matthew Ebden and John Isner before he retired from his third round with a back issue and skipped Miami. Still he is 13-6 in 2018 and has shown glimpses of his former top-10 form. He can catch fire any moment, loves his clay, and adores Roland Garros.