We’ve gotten into clay court season now, and you know what that means: Rafa, and more generally, European tennis players, reign absolutely supreme. We’re moving toward the French Open, where Nadal will attempt to win his fifth straight and ninth (!) title overall in Paris. I really don’t see who can stop him. Until someone proves they can take him out at Roland Garros, I have to pick him. This trend in recent history is all the more interesting considering that Rafa has not had the best clay court season of his career, claiming one title in Rio against less-than-stellar competition, and losing handily to Djokovic at the Miami Masters (on hard courts, but still). Check out fivethirtyeight.com’s coverage for more on Rafa on clay. But more on the French when May hits.
For now, we’ll content ourselves with the raft of Masters 1000 and WTA Premier Tournaments on the schedule. By my count, we have Monte Carlo, Madrid (which I attended last year), Barcelona, Rome, and others, though not all are top-tier tourneys. At any rate, most of the top players are in the draws, which makes them great for evaluating where a player is at handling the clay and for the season.
A word about clay: it isn’t for everyone. It’s great for players with knee problems as it’s easier to run on and slide on, creating a situation with fewer sudden stops that are easier on the body. It’s also a surface that’s very responsive to the weather: the hotter the ambient temperature, the faster the clay will move, the less it will hold the ball up, and the more it favors players who can run as much as just bludgeon the ball. The wetter and more humid that it is, the more the clay slows down and it becomes less receptive to a finesse game and more about blunt force and power. It’s probably the surface that demands the most attention to detail and variety in style of play, with grass being a close second. The good clay court player is someone who can adjust to the conditions of the clay, minute to minute, hour to hour, as much as to the strengths and weaknesses of his opponent.
Stanislas Wawrinka has continued to exhibit the top form that won him the Australian Open in January, beating David Ferrer and Roger Federer en route to the title in Monte Carlo for his first Masters 1000 championship. Nadal was taken out by Ferrer, an injured Djokovic by Federer. Surprising lessons to take from this:
1. Wawrinka will be the not-so-dark horse pick for the French, wait and see. Rafa’s slide, Federer’s absence, and Djokovic’s general taste for losing big matches make him a really juicy pick. On the other hand, Djokovic needs only the French to complete his career Slam, adding extra incentive for him. He seems determined to make this season his own, and nobody seems ready to stop him.
2. Roger Federer may yet have another slam in him, though it won’t happen at Roland Garros, because he’s skipping the Open this year to be with his family. His 2009 title there could be called a fluke, a result of Rafa’s injury and the fact that he was still more or less on top of his game. Despite the fact that he has to sweat out matches that he would have cruised through in his earlier days, he is still playing well, and the fact that he’s skipping the tournament means that he probably has attained the balance that so many athletes lack: how to manage their immense talents with the normal aspects of human life. It’s amazing to see, though wholly unsurprising from a guy like Fed.
3. Novak Djokovic is very good, but is yet to find the form that had people claiming he would enter the annals of tennis history in 2011. He seems to have lost his taste for the moment and the big match, and if he doesn’t find it again, it could be difficult to reinsert himself in the discussion for greatest player of this post-Federer era.