by Pete Bodo
Well, Monte Carlo is well underway; it's officially Euroclay time. It's an interesting time of year because it makes significant demands. Clay-court tennis may be less punishing on the body in some ways (the surface is soft and forgiving) but it's more demanding in others. How would you like to have whack an endless stream of heavy, topspinning shots on a damp, cool day, and with relatively dead strings to boot?
It's funny, but it wasn't all that long ago that any player worth their name (pro or rec level) used elastic, lively gut strings, hoping to get the most bounce out of each racket ounce. Now, the most popular strings curb or attempt to eliminate elasticity and the catapult effect it creates. That's a 180-degree difference, friends. The way of the world.
Anyway, overall consistency coupled with great fitness is de rigueur on the tour these days. The clay game is plenty "physical," but that's not an entirely new development. The terms "grinder" or "grinding" were coined to describe clay-court tennis, or tennis played with what has always been thought of as the clay-court sensibility. Slowly, though, the classic grinder has vanished almost as comprehensively as the classic serve-and-volley player. To win on clay today, you must be able to belt the ball and take your chances—two things that were never part of the grinder's repertoire.
The typical ATP pro is looking at the next two months as something like the "busy season." And that cuts both ways. It's a time of great opportunity—get the wind at your back, a surge of confidence, and a few breaks from the gods of the draw and you can build up a lot of momenturm, piling up those precious ranking points like a traveling salesman collecting frequent flyer miles. Just ask Fernando Verdasco, who played six Euroclay events last year and profited handsomely.
But if you're down in the dumps, not especially enamored of clay, physically tender or otherwise impaired, the clay season can seem less like an opportunity than a two-month sentence of hard labor. Frustrating labor. This-is-getting-me-nowhere labor, plus there's all that laundry to do, even though no article of clothing will ever again be entirely free of that faint, rusty tint. So you do what John Isner told me he does—you just leave all your tennis stuff at the hotel as a kind of room tip when you're eliminated from your last Euroclay event.
All in all, it's best to go into this clay season with a lot to gain when it comes to points, money and street cred with your fellow pros. A guy like Novak Djokovic has much to gain and relatively little to lose, thanks to the enormous number of ranking points he accumulated with his 24-0 start this year. And while his results have always been solild on clay, he hasn't really made the kind of breakthrough that characterized his hard-court season.
Last year, Djokovic lost in the semis of Monte Carlo to Fernando Verdasco, getting all of four games. With all due respect to Verdasco, it's hard to imagine the Djokovic of 2011 doing so poorly, although we're not going to find out. Djokovic skipped Monte Carlo, claiming a knee injury of which there was no evidence whatsoever when he last actually played a competitive match. Whatever the status of his knee, the man has earned a little rest.
Another guy with a lot to gain is No. 45 Juan Martin del Potro, and in his case we're not just talking about ranking or reputation points. Del Potro still needs matches after missing virtually all of last year because of that right wrist injury. He'll have the opportunity to really grove that big game of his (clay is great for that), and because he has no points to defend, he can swing from the heels. But remember what we said about those strings and big cuts? Del Potro knows that his wrist will get a serious workout in every clay match. It's one of the reasons he opted for three weeks rest after his successful hard-court season. He'll begin his European campaign at Estoril.
Del Potro can only gain ground, but some of his peers and rivals also have ground to lose. Let's take a look at the prime suspects:
Rafael Nadal, No. 1: It's counter-intuitive and perhaps even absurd, but because Nadal was perfect last spring, he can only break even or lose ground. On the whole, it's not a bad problem to have. Still, critics like to point out that Nadal hasn't won a tournament since October of 2010, and that's certainly significant. Who would have predicted that Djokovic would be a combined 5-0 against Federer and Nadal in 2011? But in the end, the overarching reality is that Nadal is in a different league from every other player on clay, and if he loses ground, it's apt to be measured in inches and square feet rather than miles or hectares.
Andy Murray, No. 4: He hasn't won a match since that devastating loss to Djokovic in the Australian Open final. In 2010, Murray was a mediocre 3-3 going into Roland Garros (where he lost in the fourth round), so he can rake in some points to make up for his dismal late winter. But Murray is one of those guys who not only has ground to gain—he has ground to lose, should his swoon continue.
It isn't so much about the ranking points at stake—Murray does a lot of his damage once the tour has moved on to North America, Asia and beyond. Murray needs wins on clay to get his game back in groove and his confidence and enthusiasm replenished. And those wins on slow clay just aren't as easy to come by as they are on hard courts or grass. Remember, this is one guy who doesn't want to head to Wimbledon in anything like crisis mode. It would bring enormous, unwanted, negative atttention down on him, and it's tough enough to be the great British hope at Wimbledon. The mandate for Murray: Win now!
Robin Soderling, No. 5: Those back-to-back titles (Rotterdam and Marseilles) he bagged this year gives him a cushion, and he'll probably need it. Soderling has two finals to defend—Barcelona and Roland Garros, which adds up to a fair number of ranking points (even if his record in the three events between those bookends was a dismal 1-3). Soderling's bigger problem is that he hasn't been himself this year, partly due to injuries and the way he handled him (for example, at Indian Wells, he more or less admitted that he probably should not even have tried to play).
In the latest development, Soderling pulled out of Monte Carlo with a sore knee. How hurt is he? It's hard to tell; perhaps whatever has been ailing Djokovic is contagious and in the end not all that serious. I can't help but notice that Soderling didn't begin his spring campaign until Barcelona last year, either.
Fernando Verdasco, No. 8: Verdasco is exhibit A for what a good clay-court season can do for you. He's still perched at No. 8 despite a fall-off in his results, and to a great extent it's due to the way he played at this time last year. Verdasco took on a huge workload and made three finals (Monte Carlo, loss to Rafael Nadal; Barcelona, won title; Nice, loss to Richard Gasquet) and a semi (Rome, loss to Ferrer) to go with a third-round effort in Madrid before Roland Garros was even underway. That catapulted him to No. 9, and he justified his seeding by going four rounds at the French Open.
But Verdasco has struggled lately. Since losing the San Jose final to young Milos Raonic in mid-February, he's won exactly one match—and that perhaps only because Richard Berankis had to retire during their second-round encounter at Indian Wells. Another loss to Raonic (first round, Memphis) helped put him in his present snit, and when last heard from, Verdasco was sniping at the promoters of the Barcelona event (where he's the defending champ) for failing to hold a wild card open for him.
Why Verdasco would not have entered Barcelona directly is something of a mystery, at least to me, but the upshot is that Verdasco will play Estoril instead. Bottom line: This is not a happy camper, and he has a lot to defend, having played a killer schedule last year.
Jurgen Melzer, No. 9: Last year on Euroclay, the Austrian surprise failed to win at least two matches at only two tournaments, and he was a quarterfinalist at Madrid and a semifinalist at Roland Garros. Coming off a career year in 2010 (did anyone really expect Melzer to burst through to the Top 10?), Melzer got off to a good start in January, losing to finalist Andy Murray in the fourth round at the Australian Open.
But then the wheels fell off, and Melzer hasn't won consecutive matches since that first major of the year. He can consolidate and win back some of the ground he lost during the hard court season in the coming weeks, because clay is his surface of choice. He could use the boost of confidence that may come from returning to the red dirt, but it might prove very slippery underfoot if he can't find the consistency that he developed last year.