Clay beckons dominant Djokovic, returning Roger, and ambitious Nadal

The build-up to the French Open next month begins now, with Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal all in action

April may bring showers but it also brings the first hint of summer to a Europe eager for the warmth that the terracotta clay season promises.

Until now, the tennis year has been dominated by the punishing hard courts and temperatures of Australia, the Middle East, and the season’s biggest Masters in California’s desert and Florida’s sub-tropical Keys.

And while some have enjoyed the brief respite of South America’s “golden swing”, now the red stuff has the stage all to itself. So the tennis tour has begun to seek out its old stomping grounds, the burnt orange ones that burst into life along the warm coastline of the Mediterranean before edging, like the sun itself, northwards to some of the most elegant cities on the continent.

For almost two months, tennis plays its longest, unbroken swing on a single surface and also—after this week—the longest period in a single region, all the way to its clay climax at the French Open.

It is a swing punctuated by no fewer than three Masters tournaments—more than in any other month on the tour—and in between them are at least two events a week. So players are spoilt for choice in location if not in surface.

Nadal’s search

One man in particular, Rafael Nadal, has dominated clay like few players have dominated any surface. From the moment the teenager burst to the top of the game more than a decade ago, winning 11 titles in 2005, he took a grip of steel on Europe’s clay: seven Rome crowns, eight Monte Carlo crowns, another eight from Barcelona, and a remarkable nine French Opens.

Over the last couple of years, though, his fingers have been prised from a growing number of clay trophies.

In Monte Carlo, he has lost to Novak Djokovic and David Ferrer in the last three years. In Barcelona, where he was unbeaten since winning in 2005, he has been halted by Nicolas Almagro and Fabio Fognini in the last two years. Last year in Rome, he was beaten in the quarters by Stan Wawrinka, and at Roland Garros, he suffered only his second exit in 72 matches in a straight-sets loss to Djokovic.

There is no doubt that illness and injury in the latter stages of 2014 took a toll, both physically and, it has subsequently become apparent, in his confidence. His return to clay in the Rio 500 last spring as defending champion ended at the semi-final stage, and did so again this year to the No45-ranked Pablo Cuevas.

He was thwarted in his only clay Masters final last year by Andy Murray, though a wild card into the Hamburg 500 in July after a second-round loss at Wimbledon, brought some clay respite: His third and biggest title last year. But he has not won a title since.

This year’s European clay, then, will arguably be more important for Nadal than any other player. All eyes will be on whether he can regain that confidence and, with it, the aura of invincibility he once had on his favourite surface.

The Djokovic dilemma

Nadal’s problem, as it is for everyone else on the men’s tour, is the impregnable form of Djokovic.

The world No1 will transfer to clay in the knowledge that he has overtaken Nadal in Masters titles, winning his 27th and 28th back to back in Indian Wells and Miami. Since the start of last year, he has reached the final of 19 of his 21 tournaments and won 15 of them. That’s a 110-7 match run, with a 40-5 record over top-10 opposition. And his only loss this year was due to an eye infection in Dubai, one of a 28-1 run that has taken in a record sixth Australian Open title, a record fifth Indian Wells title and equalling Andre Agassi’s six Miami titles.

And when it comes to clay, Djokovic is also formidable. In Monte Carlo, he has two titles from four finals, with two losses to Nadal compensated by beating the Spaniard in his two title runs. Rome has been even more successful: four titles from six finals, and twice beating Nadal. Even in Madrid, which he has missed three times since it switched to clay in 2009, he beat Nadal in his 2011 title run.

Of course the one big clay title missing from Djokovic’s resume is the French Open, where he has six times been beaten by Nadal, and then last year, in his third Roland Garros final, having beaten Nadal in the quarters and Murray in the semis, he came upon a red-hot Wawrinka in the final.

But this year, it is hard to see anyone denying Djokovic his career Slam.

Can Federer hit the red stuff running?

Federer is playing his first competitive match since the Australian Open in Monte Carlo next week after he was forced to withdraw from Rotterdam, Dubai and Indian Wells following knee surgery, and then pulled out of Miami with a stomach virus. The up side of that is that he has spent many practice sessions on Monte Carlo’s clay: the down side is that his mental and physical sharpness have gone untested for 10 weeks.

But make no mistake, he, too, has enjoyed success on clay. Last year he won the inaugural Istanbul 250 and made the final in Rome. Last year, too, Federer had more success than most against Djokovic, beating him to the titles in Dubai and Cincinnati, and in the Round Robins of the World Tour Finals—though among his losses to Djokovic was the final in Rome. Five times he has been a finalist at the French Open, winning in 2009, with his worst result in a decade the fourth round in 2014.

Last year, Federer made early exits in both Monte Carlo and Madrid—where, incidentally, he has won twice from three finals since it moved to clay—so is in a position to make points—and possibly regain the No2 ranking—in time for the French Open.

Other clay threats

Federer’s bar to that No2 ranking is Andy Murray, who won his first two clay titles last year in Munich and Madrid, after back surgery in 2013 improved his movement on the red stuff. Murray, in fact, ended 2015 with the best clay win-loss record, 17-1: Djokovic went 16-1, Nadal 26-6, Federer 12-3. Murray also pushed Djokovic to the limit in the semis of the French Open in a tight five-setter last year.

Nadal 47 clay titles, though, stands atop his fellow players by a mile: Ferrer and Almagro have 12 each, followed by Djokovic, Federer and Tommy Robredo with 11 apiece. Ferrer has also been a finalist at Roland Garros, Monte Carlo, Rome and Barcelona—though beaten every time by Nadal.

Then there is Wawrinka, who is not only the reigning French Open champion but one of just three players to win the Monte Carlo title. He is also a former finalist in Madrid and Rome.

Tomas Berdych has reached three clay Masters semi-finals and two further quarter-finals—also beaten every time by Nadal.

Kei Nishikori had Nadal on the ropes in the Madrid final of 2014 before retiring injured, and has won the Barcelona 500 the last two years.

Dominic Thiem was one of three clay champions during this year’s “golden swing”, with Buenos Aires making it four clay titles in the space of a year. Other clay winners this year are Cuevas and Victor Estrella Burgos.

Rankings ahead of clay

Djokovic has extended his lead over the field: His 16,540 points are more than what No2 Murray and No3 Federer have together (15,510) and more than three times the points of No5 Nadal (14,865).

Career highs this week: David Goffin, 13; Nick Kyrgios, 20; Andrey Kuznetsov, 45; Inigo Cervantes, 56; Rajeev Ram, 58; Denis Kudla, 59; Taylor Fritz, 79; Thomas Fabbiano, 98.

Career highs since start of the 2016: Thiem, 13 (now 14); Bernard Tomic, 17 (now 21); Steve Johnson, 29 (now 33); Guido Pella, 39 (now 46); Teymuraz Gabashvili, 43 (now 51); Alexander Zverev, 52 (now 54); John Millman, 61 (now 65); Taro Daniel, 86 (now 91); Kyle Edmund, 82 (now 92); Yuichi Sugita, 97 (now 99).

Who plays where during clay season?

4 April
Houston 250: draw 28
Defending champion, Jack Sock
Players: John Isner, Benoit Paire, Sam Querrey, Feliciano Lopez, Marcos Baghdatis, Sock, Johnson, Kudla.
Marrakech 250 (formerly in Casablanca): draw 28
Defending champion, Martin Klizan (absent with foot injury)
Players: Garcia-Lopez, Joao Sousa, Borna Coric, Federico Delbonis, Gabashvili, Albert Ramos-Vinolas, Carreno Busta, Jiri Vesely.

10 April
Monte Carlo (non-compulsory) Masters: draw 56
Defending champion, Djokovic
Only top-16 players absent are Nishikori and Isner.

18 April
Barcelona Open 500: draw 48
Defending champion, Nishikori
Players: Nadal, Nishikori, Ferrer, Gasquet, Bautista Agut, Anderson, Paire, Troicki
Bucharest 250: draw 28
Defending champion, Garcia-Lopez
Players: Ivo Karlovic, Garcia-Lopez, Baghdatis, Pella, Nico Mahut, Delbonis, Edmund

25 April
BMW Open Munich 250: draw 28
Defending champion, Murray
Players: Goffin, Thiem, Gael Monfils, Bautista Agut, Kohlschreiber, Fognini, Jeremy Chardy, Bellucci
Estoril Open Portugal 250: draw 28
Defending champion, Klizan
Players: Tsonga, Gilles Simon, Kyrgios, Paire, Sousa, Garcia Lopez, Gilles Muller, Leonardo Mayer, Coric
Istanbul Open 250: draw 28
Defending champion, Federer
Players: Grigor Dimitrov, Karlovic, Delbonis, Ramos-Vinolas, Gabashvili, Ram, Vesely, Aljaz Bedene

1 May
Madrid Masters: draw 56
Defending champion, Murray
Start list currently includes all top 16

8 May
Rome Masters: draw 56
Defending champion, Djokovic
Start list currently includes all top 16

15 May
Nice Open 250: draw 28
Defending champion, Thiem
Players: Simon, Isner, Gulbis, Mayer, Tomic, Kyrgios, Sock, Juan Monaco
Geneva Open 250: draw 28
Defending champion, Thomaz Bellucci
Players: Wawrinka, Cilic, Andujar, Becker, Andreas Haider-Maurer, Sousa, Baghdatis, Mikhail Youzhny

22 May
French Open Grand Slam: draw 128
Defending champion, Wawrinka

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