FEDERER’S CRUSADE ON CLAY MAY END AS NADAL EYES TITLE SWEEP
▶ Jon Turner looks at the big talking points to consider over eight weeks of clay-court action
Over the next eight weeks, starting with the Monte Carlo Masters, which began on Sunday, and concluding in June at the French Open, the clay courts of Europe take over the ATP Tour. Ahead of the Masters 1000 tournament in Monaco, here are some key talking points to watch out for:
If anyone can, it is Nadal
American great John McEnroe once described beating Rafael Nadal on clay as “the toughest task in tennis”.
It is difficult to argue against that claim. The Spaniard’s remarkable record speaks for itself and is too substantial to list in full, but 10 titles and just two defeats at the French Open provides adequate proof of Nadal’s unprecedented dominance.
After an injury-disrupted 2016 that saw Nadal claim ‘only’ two of the five clay-court titles on offer while withdrawing midway through the French Open, the Spaniard was back with a vengeance last season.
Nadal lost just one match, won four titles and completed his Roland Garros ‘La Decima’.
This run played no small part in helping Nadal reclaim the No 1 ranking, although the Spaniard could become a victim of his own success.
Nadal, 31, holds a slender 100-point advantage over second-ranked Roger Federer, so for the 16-time grand slam champion to prevent his Swiss rival from reclaiming top spot ahead of a ninth Wimbledon bid, Nadal will need to replicate his 2017 achievements.
He could falter in one tournament and progress beyond the Rome Masters quarter-finals – the stage at which he lost to Dominic Thiem last year – but four titles, including an 11th French Open – will be Nadal’s aim to retain his No 1 status.
However, with a clay court record that boasts 391 victories set against just 35 defeats, a record 53 titles, and having won 28 of his past 29 clay matches, if any player can achieve the required results, it’s Nadal.
Au revoir Federer?
After his early exit from the Miami Open, Federer, not surprisingly, announced he would once again be skipping the entire clay court season.
Federer, preferring to focus his energies on the grass court swing, applied the same strategy last year with successful results, including an eighth Wimbledon title.
He has decided the best way to plot an assault on title No 9 is to save his body from the rigours of the clay.
This year’s decision, however, has been met with a smattering of criticism, particularly from Spanish player Feliciano Lopez, who said Federer should “respect the tour and compete the whole year”.
Either way, with Federer, 36, approaching the final stages of his career, it now looks improbable the 2009 French Open champion will be seen again on a clay court.
Where is everyone?
Federer’s absence from the clay court swing has been well documented, but where are the rest of the old guard?
Novak Djokovic has struggled since returning to action this year after elbow surgery, his first round exit in Miami to Benoit Paire last month showing how short of confidence the 12-time major winner is.
But he started life on clay yesterday in impressive fashion as he thrashed Serbian compatriot Dusan Lajovic 6-0,6-1 in Monte Carlo.
What about Stan Wawrinka? The 2015 French Open winner and finalist last year is recovering from a long-term knee injury and has been training on clay in anticipation for his return in Madrid.
Could Andy Murray return ahead of schedule? After hip surgery in January, Murray looked toward the grass court season as his targeted return, but reports suggested he could be back sooner.
However, it makes little sense for the former world No 1 to rush his way back when it could jeopardise his Wimbledon chances. We can safely rule him out.
Thiem’s time to shine?
With the old-guard absent, injured or struggling, Nadal appears unopposed to continue racking up the clay court records. However, Dominic Thiem might have a thing or two to say about that.
The Austrian has emerged as the second-best clay court player in the world and was the only person to beat Nadal last season.
Thiem has an injury concern of his own having not played since sustaining a small ankle fracture at Indian Wells, but it appears to be a minor problem and he should be fit and firing in time for the French Open in Paris.
Seven of Thiem’s nine titles have come on clay and if anyone is to stop Nadal’s clay court clean sweep, the world No 7 is the best equipped to achieve that.
Beyond Thiem, Germany’s world No 4 Alexander Zverev – the defending Rome Masters champion – will have ambitions of adding to his six titles over the next few weeks.
Meanwhile the ATP Tour’s form player, Juan Martin Del Potro, has said he is aiming to complete the full clay swing.
Nadal will, as ever, be the man to beat, but Thiem and Co will be going all out to topple the king.
Clockwise from left: Rafael Nadal; Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Dominic Thiem