In his catalogue of Grand Slam titles, Roger Federer has won at least four times in each of the other three Majors but has claimed the French title just once. Yet he comes third on the list of most successful active clay players. The reason? His nemesis, Rafael Nadal.
Five times the Spaniard has beaten Federer in Paris, four times in the final. And in Masters, the story is the same: Nine clay finals, seven losses, most recently last year in Rome.
Yet this year, back from injury, he leads the tour in match-wins and is optimistic about carrying his resurgent form into Roland Garros: “My chances in Paris are not too bad: if it all works, and I meet good opponents, I can go far there.” Though he added, “With Rafa, however, it is still a bit complicated.”
Also complicated is his personal context: wife Mirka is soon due to give birth. That, indeed, may be the reason he took a wild card to Monte Carlo—hoping to bank some points should he be forced to miss Madrid or, a more significant loss of points, Rome.
In Paris, then, Federer will hope to retain his valuable No4 ranking and make his seeded run to the semis: Thereafter, his progress may depend on the draw.
Not only has the Briton never won a clay title among his 28, he has never yet reached a final among his 42. He revealed during his troubles in Rome last spring that back pain was a constant problem in the turning, twisting tennis demanded by clay. Now returning to form after time out for surgery at the end of last year, his form is returning and, despite losing to clay expert Fabio Fognini in the Davis Cup last week, he did at least get an early trial on the slipping, sliding environment of the red stuff.
He is putting much stock in an extended clay training block in Valencia ahead of Madrid, and has serious ambitions for Roland Garros, as he asserted to the Independent at the Queen’s Club this week:
“The best opportunity that the French Open brings is to win another Grand Slam. That’s what will be motivating me over the next three or four weeks to train hard and get in the gym and work to get physically ready.
“The French is the only Slam I haven’t made the final of. That’s something I would obviously like to achieve before the end of my career. I made the semis once and a couple of quarters so it’s certainly not impossible, but I’ll definitely need to make some improvements.”
He has proved in the past that his multifarious skills can adapt to clay. In 2011, he pushed Nadal to three sets in Monte Carlo, he stretched Djokovic to the limits in Rome and reached the semis in Paris.
This year may be too soon for a clay victory—especially as he searches for a new coach—but if the draws are kind, Murray should certainly claw his way back up the rankings.
The Spanish No2, who has just turned 32, reached a career-high No3 last summer after reaching his first Grand Slam final—at Roland Garros.
He has also been a finalist in Monte Carlo and Rome, but the fighting spirit of Ferrer has always made huge demands on his body—and this season he seems thus far to have lacked the resources for which he is rightly famed.
The year began with a shock change of coach after 15 years with Javier Piles, but he has subsequently reaped only one title from one final, and he admitted to Radio MARCA on his birthday last week:
“I’ve noted a small physical slip, especially this year. It’s costing me more to play my best tennis. It seems that it’s costing me more to react, or recover. I play a good match and the next day I find it harder to react.”
He has slipped to No6, and made a rare injury withdrawal from Indian Wells. So while Ferrer is second only to Nadal in clay-court match wins, times could be tough for the admirable Spaniard if he does not improve on his quarter-final finishes in Madrid and Rome—and the chasing pack could make that increasingly tough.
Alexandr Dolgopolov has risen from No55 at the start of 2014 to this week’s No22 and some of his early-season success has come on clay. He reached the Rio de Janeiro final by beating Ferrer and Fognini, losing to Nadal in the final. He had subsequent strong runs on hard courts, too, beating Nadal in Indian Wells. With a charismatic, all-court game and flamboyant skills, he could shake up draws through the spring.
Fognini, newly at No13 in the rankings, is riding high after an impressive victory over Murray in the Davis Cup last week, his 21st win of the year, and his 25th on clay of the last 27 played. In February, he won in Vina del Mar and was runner-up in Buenos Aires: Indeed he has reached the final of five of his last six clay court events.
Tommy Robredo returned from injury last year to score two clay titles, his first wins in over two years, and was a semi-finalist in Buenos Aires. All 12 of his titles have come on clay, including his only Masters title in Hamburg in 2006, and he is currently at his highest ranking in five years, No14.
Federico Delbonis, who has just broken the top 50 for the first time, won his first title in Sao Paulo this season and has reached the quarters in Casablanca this week, having beaten former champion Gilles Simon.
Also worth keeping an eye on is Ernests Gulbis, who won the first set against Nadal in Rome last year and, in his breakthrough season on the tour in 2010, beat Federer to reach the semis in Rome, and was a quarter-finalist in Madrid and Barcelona. He has been in form again this year, and might just upset a couple of big names.
Check out the first part of Marianne Bevis’s clay-court season preview here
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