Clay calls – but who will answer? Federer rejoins triumvirate with Nadal and Djokovic

Marianne Bevis looks ahead to the clay-court season, where Roger Federer is due to join Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis
Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal (Photo: Marianne Bevis)

• ATP Performance Index lists Nadal, Djokovic, and Federer as best three active players on clay

• Federer joins trio on clay for first time in three years, French Open for first time since 2015

• Nadal goes for 12 in Barcelona, Monte Carlo and Paris; Djokovic could complete Major sweep

The first quarter of 2019 is done and dusted, a quarter during which tennis has been dominated by the punishing hard courts and temperatures of Australia, the Middle East, and North America.

And while some men made a short detour in February to lap up the warm terracotta of South America’s “golden swing”, now the red stuff has the stage all to itself.

For almost two months, tennis plays its longest, unbroken swing on a single surface and—after this week’s overture in Houston and Marrakech—the longest period in a single continent, all the way to its climax at the French Open.

It is a swing rich in Masters titles, three of them, and each is played in one of tennis’s most elegant settings. Madrid and Rome follow the historic 500 in Barcelona, but none is more glamorous than the first Masters, at the Monte-Carlo Country Club on the terraces above the Mediterranean.

And the big question at this time of the tennis year has been the same for more than a decade: Can anyone displace Rafael Nadal as the king of clay?

Nadal’s kingly records

That he was forced to pull out of Indian Wells in the semis, and then bypass Miami, to nurse a knee problem will probably make little difference to the reply, for the ease with which the great Spaniard adapts to clay after the punishing demands of three months on hard courts has never diminished—and his preparations back in his beloved Mallorca are well under way.

To demonstrate just how dominant Nadal has been, he tops the ATP’s all-time win index for a reason—ahead not only of contemporaries Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer but of all-time clay greats such as Bjorn Borg and Guillermo Vilas: 57 clay titles, and a 92 percent winning rate.

No wonder records continue to tumble when he strides onto the red stuff. This year, he is going for his ninth Rome Masters title, his 11th Barcelona title, his 12th Monte-Carlo Masters title, and his 12th French Open—he is defending champion at all of them. And since the Madrid Masters moved to clay in 2009, Nadal has won four times and fallen short of the quarters just once—on the experimental blue clay of 2012.

Djokovic and Federer on clay

But what of his two great rivals, Djokovic and Federer? So good have they been on the surface that they are second and third among current players on that index. Each has won Roland Garros once—though it is worth adding that 2009 and 2016 were the only occasions in his 14-year Paris history that Nadal lost before the quarters..

Djokovic, in fact, has beaten Nadal in all three clay Masters and accumulated eight titles across Monte-Carlo, Madrid and Rome. His winning record is at 79 percent, titles up to 13, and if he wins his opener in Monte-Carlo next week, he will notch up his 200th clay win. Should he go on to win his second French Open, he would hold all four Majors at once, and for the second time.

Federer first played the French Open 20 years ago, but has not played there since knee surgery, at the age of 34, at the start of 2016. But this year, he has chosen to return for an 18th appearance. He does so in the knowledge that, although he won in 2009, he has been beaten in four Paris finals by Nadal. And he plays on clay for the first time since his premature attempt to return at Monte-Carlo and Rome three years ago. So his expectations are, rightly, low:

“I’m not very confident going into this clay court season—I didn’t even remember how to slide anymore… To be honest, I didn’t play one point, not one shot on clay, I don’t believe, last year. Two years ago, I played two days. Three years ago, I played not feeling great in Monaco and Rome. It’s been so little that I really don’t know what to expect…”

That said, he has a 76 percent winning record on clay, 214 match-wins, and 11 titles, including four Hamburg Masters—claiming the title bout over Nadal in 2007.

The challengers

· Dominic Thiem, No5 in the ranks, is still just 25 years old, but has 115 wins on clay, eight titles, boasts a runner-up trophy at the French Open after two semi runs there. He has also twice been runner-up in Madrid and a semi-finalist in Rome. That he arrives in Monte-Carlo on the back of his first Masters title in Indian Wells makes him a serious contender on his favourite surface.

· Alexander Zverev, ranked No3, won his first Masters in Rome two years ago, beating Djokovic, at only 19 years old, and reached the final last year having beaten Thiem to claim the Madrid title. And his only Major quarter-final thus far was at Roland Garros last year. Add in his two straight victories at Munich, and he has proved that his power game is very at home on the clay. He has, incidentally, taken a wild card into Marrakech this week.

· Stan Wawrinka has reached two French Open finals, winning in 2015, has won Monte-Carlo and has reached the final in Rome and Madrid. Seven clay titles bear witness to his clay roots, though his power game has found success on hard courts, too. And after a slump in the ranks after double knee surgery, he has clawed his way back to 36, and will be keen to gain enough points to get among the familiar territory of seedings: in Indian Wells and Miami, he twice drew Federer in the third round.

· Kei Nishikori, world No6, has been runner up in Monte-Carlo [last year] and Madrid, and has twice won Barcelona. Perhaps surprising, too, he has a better winning percentage on clay than on hard or grass courts.

Clay players to watch this week

Marrakech is topped by Zverev, but Fabio Fognini also has a wild card, and seven of the Italian’s eight titles have come on clay, including Bastad and Sao Paulo last year. He also has six clay finals on his resume. Briton Kyle Edmund, Gilles Simon [former champion] and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga will also be dangers. Other champions in the draw are Pablo Andujar, who just won the Ferrero Challenger, and Federico Delbonis—they play each other in Round 1.

NB Also playing are Laslo Djere and Juan Ignacio Londero, who won their first ever titles during the ‘golden swing’ in February.

Houston is topped by two-time defending champion Steve Johnson, with big power players such as Reilly Opelka and Ivo Karlovic in the mix. But look out for young riser Casper Ruud and veteran Pablo Cuevas (twice into clay semis this year).

Ranking news

What stands out in the current rankings is the age span of those men who have been showing great form in the last month or so.

· At one end is 37-year-old Federer, No4 this week, the oldest ever champion in Miami last week, and at the other extreme, Felix Auger-Aliassime, age 18, up to 33 from 108 this season. The Canadian reached his first final in Rio, and became the youngest semi-finalist at the Miami Masters.

· Auger-Aliassime is not the only young player carrying the youthful banner this season. At career highs this week are Stefanos Tsitsipas (at No8), Daniil Medvedev (14), and Denis Shapovalov (20), while career highs this season have been achieved by Karen Khachanov (11), Borna Coric (12), Alex de Minaur (24), and Frances Tiafoe (29).

· At the very top by a country mile is Djokovic, who was down at 22 for the French Open last year as he worked back from prolonged elbow injury, and bearing in mind that Nadal has almost 5,000 points to defend through the clay swing against Djokovic’s 855, it looks unlikely that the Serb will concede his place at the top—and may well increase his 2,345 points advantage over his rival.

· Federer leads Djokovic by a whisker in the Race to London, but it is hard to see him maintaining that lead after such a long time away from clay. He could also see his No4 place in the overall ranks slip, certainly in the short term, as Thiem attempts to whittle away an 800-point margin.

· Djere beat Thiem on his way to the Rio title and Auger-Aliassime to get to the Sao Paulo semis, rising to 32 from 93 at the start of the year. Most of his successful Challenger events last summer do not come off until June, so he is looking at a seeding for Roland Garros.

Career high ranking this week (top 40)

Tsitsipas (8)

Medvedev (14)

Nikoloz Basilashvili (17)

Shapovalov (20)

Auger-Aliassime (33)

[plus NB Hubert Hurkacz 52]

Career high ranking this season (top 40)

Khachanov (11)

Coric (12)

Marco Cecchinato (16)

de Minaur (24)

Tiafoe (29)

Djere (31)

Marton Fucsovics (31)

Guido Pella (33)

12-month clay performances

Reigning clay champions and runners-up (in chronological order)

Houston: Johnson; RU Tennys Sandgren

Marrakech: Andujar; RU Edmund

Monte-Carlo Masters: Nadal; RU Nishikori

Barcelona: Nadal; RU Tsitsipas

Budapest: Cecchinato; RU John Millman

Munich: Zverev; RU Philipp Kohlschreiber

Estoril: Joao Sousa; RU Tiafoe

[Istanbul: Taro Daniel; RU Malek Jaziri]

Madrid Masters: Zverev; RU Thiem

Rome Masters: Nadal; RU Zverev

Geneva: Fucsovics; RU Peter Gojowczyk

Lyon: Thiem; RU Simon

French Open: Nadal; RU Thiem

Post-grass ‘golden swing’

Umag: Cecchinato; RU Pella

Bastad: Fognini; RU Richard Gasquet

Hamburg: Basilashvili: RU Leonardo Mayer

Gstaad: Matteo Berrettini; RU Roberto Bautista Agut

Kitzbuhel: Martin Klizan; RU Denis Istomin

Clay champions this year (ie 2019 Golden Swing)

Londero (Cordoba)

Cecchinato (Buenos Aires)

Djere (Rio)

Pella (Sao Paulo)

Hard-court champions this season so far

Bautista Agut (Doha)

Nishikori (Brisbane)

Kevin Anderson (Pune)

de Minaur (Sydney)

Sandgren (Auckland)

Djokovic (Australian Open)

Albot (Delray Beach)

Federer (Dubai, Miami)

Nick Kyrgios (Acapulco)

Thiem (Indian Wells)

[plus indoor swing: Tsonga (Montpellier), Medvedev (Sofia), Gael Monfils (Rotterdam), Opelka (New York), Tsitsipas (Marseille)]

WTA clay preview: As three hard months give way to clay, Wozniacki, Kerber, Muguruza mix it up

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