ATP Plotlines to Ponder: Clay Season Edition

For nearly a decade, Nadal has dominated this part of the season.

Having concluded the first hard-court season, the ATP moves on to spend the spring on clay in cities like Monte Carlo, Madrid, Rome, and Paris.  Take a look at some of the key narratives that might set the tone during this action-packed span.

1.      Can anyone stop Nadal? 

This question has dominated the ATP clay season every season since 2006, and only twice (2009 and 2011) has anyone made significant incursions into Rafa’s fortresses.  In the wake of his extended injury absence, Nadal recaptured his familiar form sooner than anyone would have imagined.  Having won the first Masters 1000 tournament of his comeback on a hard court, defeating three top-eight opponents en route, he has positioned himself ideally to repeat last year’s perfect record on his beloved red clay.  While he may annihilate fewer opponents than he once did, Indian Wells showed that his competitive ferocity and the aura that it creates had returned.  Doubters will note that Nadal’s No. 5 ranking may require him to defeat all three of his leading rivals to win these tournaments, starting with possible quarterfinal tilts against Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer.  As long as he stays healthy, though, an earlier marquee matchup than usual seems more their problem than his.

2.      Will Djokovic complete the career Grand Slam?

Less stunning than the “Nole Slam” attempted last year, this accomplishment still would lift the Serb into a lofty elite.  As a similar question once did with Federer, this question essentially equates to whether Djokovic can defeat Nadal at Roland Garros.  (Granted, the Swiss might nudge our attention toward a 2011 semifinal there.)  After he solved Rafa on red clay at Madrid and Rome two years ago, Djokovic surrendered that momentum by losing all three finals that they played at this time last year.  The Masters 1000 tournaments will prove crucial for him in rebuilding the foundation of confidence that he built in 2011, and in reminding Rafa of the problems that this matchup poses for him on any surface.  Djokovic’s current ankle injury appears less severe than initially feared, but his spring form has not impressed.  It’s an even bet whether he is overdue to erupt or at the outset of a longer lull.

3.      Will Ferrer become a spoiler, or more?

Surpassing his compatriot Nadal in the ATP rankings earlier this year, Ferrer cracked the top four for the first time.  He has reached semifinals at three of the last four majors and has recorded almost as many titles since the start of 2012 as in the rest of his career combined.  Among them was his first Masters 1000 title, which many expected to embolden a man who has finished runner-up in Monte Carlo and Rome.  Ferrer lost to Nadal on both of those occasions, and in the Roland Garros semifinal last year, a trend that continued when Rafa routed him in Acapulco recently.  The epitome of a classic clay specialist, he may bring momentum from coming within a point of winning Miami.  Or that disappointment may have deepened his crippling lack of belief against the Big Four.  He will miss Monte Carlo but should return for Barcelona a week later.

4.      Can Del Potro extend his surge?

Since his return from wrist surgery in 2010, the former US Open champion had struggled to regain his confidence against the ATP elite.  Glimmers of hope amid his futility began to emerge late last year with two victories over Federer, though, and the Tower of Tandil soared back to vintage heights when he won consecutive three-setters from Andy Murray and Djokovic at Indian Wells.  Del Potro even led Nadal by a set and a break in the final, stringing together his best week ever at a Masters 1000 tournament.  While he plays his best tennis on hard courts, he came within a set of the Roland Garros final in 2009 and has captured clay titles before.  The Argentine seems the most plausible dark horse among those ranked outside the top five, partly because he moves more smoothly on this surface than most men of his height.

5.      How will the new-look, old-look Madrid tournament unfold?

Barely had Ion Tiriac shifted his playground in the Magic Box from the indoor season to the clay season than he altered it again.  The blue clay attracted a torrent of controversy as it appeared to reward fast-court players like finalists Federer and Berdych over those who more commonly excel on clay.  But, even before that surface change, the red clay in Madrid had produced some unusual results together with spellbinding epics like the Nadal-Djokovic semifinal in 2009.  One recalls oddities like Federer’s swing-and-miss on match point two years ago, while the altitude created conditions from those of any other clay tournament.  When Madrid bows to convention, then, the question remains whether other factors will create a distinctly different set of outcomes from those in Monte Carlo, Rome, and Roland Garros.  Stay tuned for an article from me on this topic midway through the tournament.

6.      What can we expect from the Frenchmen?

Much ink has spilled on the inability of home hopes to win Roland Garros since Yannick Noah astonished the world three decades ago.  That possibility remains minute at best, but it seems worth noting that Frenchmen have acquitted themselves creditably at their own major in the last several years.  While Gael Monfils reached the semifinals in 2008 and the quarterfinals in 2011, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga held four match points against Djokovic in a quarterfinal last year.  France brings two top-ten men to Roland Garros in 2013, Tsonga and the resurgent Richard Gasquet.  Uneasy on home soil before, Gasquet has recorded some of his most notable victories on clay, including two upsets over Federer.  The storylines of who rises to the occasion and who does not should enliven the first week, and the preceding tournaments might offer some hints about which of these streaky men will strike a torrid vein of form.

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Of course, plenty of other storylines will unfold over the next several weeks on the European clay.  Feel free to share your thoughts of what you will look forward to watching there.