Clay court season lessons, pre-French Open

We’re in the meat of the clay court season now, and things are starting to heat up as we head toward the finale, the French Open, set to begin in about two weeks. What lessons have we learned from the clay court season thus far?

  1. That Rafael Nadal has risen to the occasion when he has points to defend, almost always. Never mind Andre Agassi picking him as the greatest of all time, never mind the fact that he lost more in the lead-up to this point in the clay court season than he had in a clay court season in many years. Never mind the furious pursuit of guys like Stanislas Wawrinka and David Ferrer. Nadal had points to defend in Madrid, and he defended them, against Kei Nishikori of Japan in the final.
  2. Get used to seeing Kei Nishikori’s name late in tournaments, especially if they’re on clay. Nishikori is the first Japanese man to break into the top 10, something that no American man is currently doing. Nishikori, who has long played the early-round spoiler at tournaments, has discovered his form at age 24, about the time that many all-time great began to reach their peaks (Federer was 22-23 in 2004, when he made his bones, and Djokovic 23-24 in his memorable 2011 campaign). Nadal was much younger when he broke through at Roland Garros in 2005, but for a long time, that was the only venue where he was unbeatable. Nishikori has developed some serious groundstrokes, using an all-court forehand to set up backhand winners and great footwork to ensure that he’s never out of position or hurried. He’s good. Really good. I can’t wait to see what happens in Paris.

    Get ready to see more of Kei Nishikori. He's no longer an outsider, and as the first Japanese man to break the top 10, he's hungry for more.

    Get ready to see more of Kei Nishikori. He’s no longer an outsider, and as the first Japanese man to break the top 10, he’s hungry for more.

  3. Watch Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray’s forms. Djokovic was recently out with a wrist injury that hampered his performance in Monte Carlo and Madrid, and Murray is very much still on the road back to form from surgery and a split with his coach. He’s played all right, and it will be interesting to see how he performs come Wimbledon time, where he will be the first British man to defend his title at the All England Club since 1937. Though the clay has never been particularly kind to Murray (never reached the French final, one Masters 1000 title to his name), he’s generally been good enough for at least the quarterfinals in his best form. Djokovic still needs only the French to complete his career Slam, and if the stories are to be believed, his wrist is pain-free and he’s ready for a run. I’m counting him out until I see his form in Italy, the last major tuneup for the French that’s taking place right now.
  4. Roger Federer experienced something of a career renaissance when his twin daughters were born in 2009, winning two slams then and another in January 2010 to prove that he wasn’t done yet. He has another set of twins now, boys, whom he says will join him on tour. He’s played better lately, losing in the final at Monte Carlo to surging Swiss counterpart Wawrinka before skipping Madrid. Much will be told in the coming weeks.
  5. Look out for guys with names you haven’t heard of, like Santiago Giraldo of Colombia and Carlos Berlocq of Argentina. I saw Berlocq at the U.S. Open last September get eviscerated by Federer; it wasn’t his best outing. But he’s been better of late, and Giraldo looked great in ousting Andy Murray in the third round in Madrid. His groundstrokes were strong, angled well, and loaded with spin. He could be a force to be reckoned with.
  6. Serena Williams withdrew from Madrid with a thigh injury and didn’t commit to play in Italy until the last minute. Serena’s always been one to be open and honest about her health (remember the blood clots?), so I believe she’s healthy, but for the first time in a decade, she has points to defend at Roland Garros, and Maria Sharapova looks good. Like, two of the last three titles good. Still, she hasn’t beaten Serena since George W. Bush was still in his first term, losing 15 consecutive times in the interim, the majority of those in straight sets. I expect Serena and Li Na to dominate.
  7. At this point, it’s fair to say that Simona Halep, the Romanian number one, is for real. She reached the final in Madrid (her first Premier tournament final), has Grand Slam experience, and seems poised to make a run. Her issue is her counterpunching style. Andy Murray once played essentially this way, and nothing came of it but lots of heartbreak. Counterpunching works fine against less-talented opponents in the earlier rounds. Against stiffer competition in the quarterfinals and later, better players eliminate the ability to counter effectively with better shotmaking angles and speeds. They are also faster on their feet, which take away a lot of the winners and fitness advantage that counterpunchers tend to possess. In short, it’s a great style of play to make your name, but not a great way to win Slams. Then again, Halep is only 22, leaving much room for improvement. Sharapova exposed her lack of experience, coming back from a poor first set and taking advantage of groundstrokes and serves that, when working, set even the best players running. They worked like a charm against Halep, whose style was fatally exposed. However, she’s number five in the world right now, which is nothing to sneeze at, needless to say.
  8. This is unrelated, but still interesting. I saw Richard Williams, father of Venus and Serena, speak in New York last week, in support of his new book. It was an amazingly touching experience, the way that he supported and taught his daughters through immense hardship and adversity. One thing that stood out was his devotion to overcoming the fact that he had never actually played tennis. Williams taught his daughters to serve by throwing their rackets in the manner of the great Los Angeles Dodgers pitchers of the 1960s, Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax. Koufax, a particularly hard-thrower, released the ball from straight above his head, rather than a ¾ arm slot, which is more normal for baseball pitchers. Emulating the speed and throwing motion of the great hurlers, he turned his daughters into the two best servers the women’s game has ever seen. There were many more touching moments, but this tennis one was so ingenious, I just had to share.

Keep it here for Roland Garros updates and previews once the draw is released. It’s coming.