▶ Jon Turner looks at the big talk­ing points to con­sider over eight weeks of clay-court ac­tion

The National - News - - SPORT -

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.

Reuters; Getty; AFP

Clock­wise from left: Rafael Nadal; Roger Fed­erer, No­vak Djokovic and Do­minic Thiem

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