Old rivalries between Djokovic, Federer, Murray and Nadal take to clay

Marianne Bevis previews the European clay-court season, which gets under way in Monte Carlo on Sunday

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 gruelling hard courts and punishing temperatures of Australia and its first Grand Slam, by detours to the Middle East, and by 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 time is ripe for the red stuff to take centre stage. 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.

Yet while the players enjoy fewer time zones, and the regular sleep patterns that come from this constancy, it is a stretch during which much can be both gained and lost—the only one to feature three Masters in little more than a month.

It is also the time and the place that has, in the past, boasted perhaps tennis’s most dominant presence, but this year, unlike most European springs of the last decade, there is a small question-mark alongside Rafael Nadal’s name.

Nowhere is that question more relevant than in the first of the trio of clay Masters, the self-styled “Gem Of the Mediterranean”: Monte Carlo.

Nadal and clay: will it again be a red rag to a bull?

Before last year’s tournament, the remarkable Spaniard had a 44-1 record at the Monte Carlo Country Club, with his only defeat coming as a 16-year-old on his debut in 2003. He went on to win eight back-to-back titles, but in 2013, he was beaten by Novak Djokovic in the final. Then last year, he was beaten on clay for the first time in a decade by David Ferrer in the quarters.

Did that suggest a chink in the Nadal red armour?

It is, of course, not just in Monte Carlo that Nadal has shone. In Barcelona, he is an eight-time champion, but in 2014 he lost in the quarters for the first time to Nicolas Almagro. He has won the Rome Masters seven times, but last year lost to Djokovic in the final. He did win the Madrid crown, but his opponent Kei Nishikori retired after winning the first set.

Come the big one, though, the French Open, Nadal was back to winning ways with a remarkable ninth title, a 66-1 run. It seems, then, almost sacrilegious to talk of another name on the Paris trophy, yet after a tough closing six months to 2014 packed with injury and illness, Nadal has yet to regain his full powers, yet to beat anyone ranked in the top dozen so far this year—and yet to fully believe in himself, as he made clear after his defeat in Miami last week:

“I’m still playing with too much nerves for a lot of moments, in important moments, still playing a little bit anxious… But I gonna fix it. I don’t know if in one week, in six months, or in one year, but I gonna do it.”

Nadal has proved time and again that long injury breaks cannot deter him. With his feet on clay, with more match-play in his body, and with a growing tally of wins under his belt, the Nadal endurance and confidence will grow—and all his rivals will know that only too well.

Nadal finds himself ranked No5, but in Monte Carlo, the two seeds above him, Andy Murray and Kei Nishikori, are not playing, so he cannot face Djokovic or Roger Federer before the semis.

But he will need to hit the ground running if he is to avoid that fate come Madrid, Rome and, more importantly, Roland Garros. For between Nishikori at No4 and Stan Wawrinka at No9, there are just 875 ranking points.

As he said in Florida: “The tournaments that are coming are tournaments that are historically good for my game, good for my confidence. Is true that if I’m not able to control all these things, I’m not gonna have the possibility to compete well and have success… But still with confidence, I can do it.”

Djokovic on the verge

Djokovic has made little secret of his desire to complete his Grand Slam by winning the French Open—and he has already come close to doing so. In 10 visits to Roland Garros, he has met and lost to Nadal six times, reaching two of the last three finals and coming within a hair’s breadth of beating Nadal in the semis in 2013, losing 9-7 in the fifth.

With four wins over Nadal in clay Masters finals, there is no doubting Djokovic’s ability to beat the ultimate clay champion, and the Serb is, arguably, playing better tennis than at any stage in his career. He has won the three biggest tournaments of the year so far: the Australian Open, and the Indian Wells-Miami double—and stands 4,310 points ahead of No2 in the rankings, Federer.

No wonder he looks and sounds so confident: “I could not ask for a better start of the season winning three big titles. Hopefully I’m able to use this for the clay court coming up. That’s extremely important for me obviously leading up to French. We’ll see. I feel good about myself right now on the court, and just going to take it slowly, one tournament at a time. I’m trying to enjoy the moment and utilise this time of my career where I’m probably playing the tennis of my life and I’m feeling confident and physically fit… There is going to be eventually a change of generations, but until that time comes, I’m going to try to stay as long as I can on the top and fight for biggest titles.”

Djokovic did not play Madrid last year due to injury and ‘only’ reached the semis in Monte Carlo, so he could even extend his lead over the field. But who poses the biggest threat to such ambitions if not Nadal?

Federer’s French odyssey

In his catalogue of Grand Slam titles, Federer has won at least four times in each of the other three Majors but has claimed the French title just once. For in Paris, he has lost four finals to Nadal.

The Rome Masters has also remained stubbornly evasive for Federer: two final losses to Nadal, two semi losses to Djokovic. Indeed with the Serb now top of the 52-week clay ATP Performance Zone on clay, and already with nine titles on the red stuff to Federer’s 10, the task of winning a clay title has grown no easier.

As Federer said last year, after a strong return from a 2013 injury dip: “My chances in Paris are not too bad: if it all works, and I meet good opponents, I can go far there… With Rafa, however, it is still a bit complicated.”

But he bypassed Miami, according to agent Tony Godsick, to: “play a schedule that works for him physically, that makes sense with his family.”

Turning 34 later this year, Federer has taken time out—just as he did before winning Dubai and reaching the final of Indian Wells. As a bonus, Federer has few points to defend once Monte Carlo is out of the way—he was beaten there by Wawrinka in the final last year—after his season was broken by the birth of his second set of twins during the Madrid Masters. He may be trailing Djokovic by big points, but he can pile them on too.

Murray seeks elusive first clay title

Not only has the Briton never won a clay title among his 31, he has never reached a final among his 47. Yet on his return to clay after back surgery last season, he showed he is no slouch on the dust, reaching the French Open semis and Rome quarters—and that devoid of a coach.

He has begun 2015 well, give or take three losses to Djokovic in the three big tournaments, but a final finish in Australia and Miami and a semi run in Indian Wells were encouraging, and consolidated him at No3 in the rankings. Yet as he admitted after twice losing a 6-0 set to Djokovic, there is a problem to solve:

“I’ve trained as hard as I can. Maybe I could have hydrated a little bit better, but I don’t think that I can do a whole lot more physically to get in much better shape. So just have to try and keep working hard and see if there are a few things I can do differently. He was stronger than me at the end for sure.”

Murray will not be in Monte Carlo as he marries his partner Kim Sears this weekend, so has opted into the Munich 250 to get his clay shoes working. But even with a strong opening, this is no easy phase for Murray: He has, after all, never beaten Djokovic, Federer or Nadal on clay.

More top-10 threats: Wawrinka, Ferrer, Raonic

When Federer told Swiss Illustrated last year that he expected friend Wawrinka to win the French Open before the Australian, it was with good reason. For Wawrinka’s early titles and his only Masters finals had come on clay—Rome in 2008 and Madrid in 2013. Prescient from Federer, as it happens: Wawrinka would beat his compatriot in Monte Carlo last year to claim his first Masters title.

Not that the rest of the clay season was so impressive, with early losses in the remaining big tournaments. Now, after early losses in North America, he should have plenty in hand, and while No9 is at his lowest ranking in over a year, even a modest clay surge could take him up several places in this packed segment.

David Ferrer’s 33 years belie the ongoing achievements and commitment of the No7 ranked Spaniard. Already he has three titles this year, though such is his consistency on clay that he has a mountain to climb if he is to put on points this year: In 2014, he reached the quarters in Rome and Roland Garros, the semis in Madrid and Monte-Carlo—where he even beat Nadal. So Ferrer will give even the best a run for their money, win or lose.

No6 Milos Raonic has spearheaded ‘Generation 1990’ up the rankings, and for all his big, hard-hitting style of tennis, he showed his clay ability last year with quarter-final runs in Madrid and Paris and a semi finish in Rome. The biggest weakness in his game, his movement, is improving all the time, and he arrives on clay with a win over Nadal under his belt. He could surprise.

Fresh names, old ambitions

Nishikori is not playing Monte Carlo, but he is a threat during the rest of the season. A win in Barcelona, plus Nadal on the ropes in Madrid last year, prove that Nishikori’s all-court, nimble tennis suits clay very well.

Tommy Robredo, also about to turn 33, made an impressive return from injury in 2013, and all 12 of his titles have come on clay. He has few points to defend from the clay last year, too, so must have ambitions for a rise in the rankings.

David Goffin made great strides last season on his comeback from injury, winning three back-to-back Challengers and then his first ATP title—all on clay. He is at a career-high No20 and has very few points to defend until the summer.

Grigor Dimitrov won Bucharest last year, reached the semis in Rome, but lost in the first round of Roland Garros—so he has clay skill as well as Grand Slam ambition. However, he is still looking for a top-30 win this year.

Juan Monaco was outside the top 100 a year ago after injury, but has returned strongly to reach the final on Buenos Aires’ clay plus the quarters in Miami.

Ernests Gulbis, despite a dreadful run of form since last October, reinforced his clay prowess last year with a semi run in Paris and Barcelona, the Nice title, and a quarter finish in Madrid. Things in 2015, surely, can only get better.

Who is playing when and where

6 April
Defending champion, Fernando Verdasco
Players: Verdasco, John Isner, Feliciano Lopez, Roberto Bautista Agut, Kevin Anderson
Defending champion, Guillermo Garcia-Lopez
Players: Garcia-Lopez, Martin Klizan, Jiri Vesely, Marcel Granollers

12 April
Monte Carlo Masters (non-compulsory)
Defending champion, Wawrinka
Only top-12 players absent are Murray (who marries on 11 April), Nishikori, and Lopez.

20 April
Barcelona Open 500
Defending champion, Nishikori
Players: Nishikori, Nadal, Raonic, Ferrer, Marin Cilic, Lopez, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Gulbis
Bucharest 250
Defending champion, Dimitrov
Players: Gilles Simon, Ivo Karlovic, Garcia-Lopez, Lukas Rosol, Andreas Seppi

27 April
BMW Open Munich 250
Defending champion, Klizan
Players: Murray, Goffin, Fabio Fognini, Karlovic, Julien Benneteau, Rosol, Seppi, Dominic Thiem
Estoril Open Portugal 250 (new this year)
Players: Lopez, Anderson, Robredo, Richard Gasquet, Nick Kyrgios, Borna Coric
Istanbul Open 250 (new this year)
Federer, Dimitrov, Pablo Cuevas, Santiago Giraldo, Monaco

3 May
Madrid Masters
Defending champion, Nadal

10 May
Rome Masters
Defending champion, Djokovic

17 May
Nice Open 250
Defending champion, Gulbis
Geneva Open 250 (new this year)

24 May
French Open
Defending champion, Nadal

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