Clay Crystal Ball, Part I

Tuesday, April 10, 2012 /by

JmdpThis is a week for speculating as much as it is for spectating. The clay swing has tentatively begun, but few of the serious contenders for its biggest titles have joined in just yet—the men get started in earnest this coming Monday in Monte Carlo, the women the following Monday in Stuttgart. For the rest of this week, I’ll take a look at the prospects of some of those contenders. I’ll cover four players each day, for the next four days, in alphabetical order.

*****

Victoria Azarenka
Looking back, Vika’s clay season in 2011 was a strangely mixed bag. She won in Marbella; retired against Julia Georges with a shoulder injury in the first round in Stuttgart; reached the final in Madrid before losing to Petra Kvitova; and retired again, this time with an elbow injury, in the quarterfinals in Rome against Maria Sharapova. With the benefit of hindsight, you might say this was the period when the new Vika, the regular champ and runner-up, was leaving the old Vika, who was regularly injured, behind.

In 2012, Azarenka will start in Stuttgart, then head for Madrid, Rome, and Paris. In one sense, clay is a good surface for this generally consistent ball-striker; she’s been to the quarters at Roland Garros twice. But clay is doubly challenging, because you can’t just be consistent, you also have to have the pace to hit through the court and finish points—in that sense, Vika’s loss to the much-less-steady Kvitova in Madrid last year wasn’t surprising. I also watched Azarenka play one of the worst matches of her career at Roland Garros in a loss to Gisela Dulko two years ago.

All three of the tune-up events will have strong fields. Azarenka should get a chance to face the major players she hasn’t faced so far in 2012: Wozniacki, Kvitova, and Serena Williams, who is planning to play Madrid and Rome. Will we continue to see the new Vika, or will some of the old issues begin to creep back in as the season goes on? In past years, she has started fast and faded down the stretch. And she can’t have simply left the injuries behind for good, can she? The dirty work of being a No. 1 begins now.

*****

Juan Martin del Potro
Del Potro will begin the clay season with a much-needed rest. He’s played a lot of tennis this year, much of it, unfortunately for him, against Roger Federer—he lost to Fed in Melbourne, Rotterdam, Dubai, and Indian Wells. After two wins in Davis Cup this past weekend, del Potro is off until Estoril, which starts April 30, and where he’s the defending champion.

That doesn’t mean del Potro’s mind will be entirely at ease. He knows that ranking points are out there to be had, and that the tour stops for no one. “I don’t want to lose ground on those above me,” del Potro said this weekend, mentioning that the top guys will be at it in Monte Carlo. "I’m still dreaming of getting as close [to them] as possible.”

Is this, after two years of hard climbing, the time when we see del Potro make his dream come true and get back in contention for majors? He can play on clay, as his Estoril title and 2009 French Open semifinal appearance attest. Or has he reached his new, post-wrist-surgery ceiling, hovering just below the elite at No. 11, not quite steady or confident enough to stay with them anymore? It's been a stop-and-start 2012. There’s been a title indoors in Marseille, the four losses to Federer, and maybe most disappointing, a 3 and 3 defeat to David Ferrer in Miami. I’m not sure del Potro is consistent enough for clay these days.

*****

Novak Djokovic
Is Djokovic playing Monte Carlo in part just to put an end Rafael Nadal’s ridiculous run of seven straight titles there? If so, it’s not a bad idea. Nadal annually uses this event to shake off any early season doldrums and get on his customary unstoppable roll toward Paris and Wimbledon.

Djokovic is an enviable position coming into clay. He has a solid lead in the rankings, and he’ll start by playing in his adopted hometown. And if he does lose there, to Nadal or anyone else, he still has time to find his form before the only clay event that really counts for him, the French Open.

If anything, Djokovic reached his peak in 2011 in Madrid and Rome—in his six wins over Nadal last year, those were the only two in which he didn’t drop a set. The game he has used to reach the top ranking, one based on overall excellence and consistency on offense and defense, may be best suited for clay. He can rally with anyone, but also put the ball away.

I like Djokovic’s chances this spring. Potential obstacles: (1) Return of breathing/fitness issues on a hot spring day—they helped send him to an early defeat in Paris in 2009, and they were in evidence in the Miami final two weeks ago. (2) Potential loss of confidence from an upset loss, or loss to Nadal. Djokovic was asked in Indian Wells when his last “truly disappointing” defeat had been. He went all the way back to last year’s French Open semifinal to find it. So any loss leading to Paris could mess with his psychology, simply because he’s experienced so few of them lately. Of course, he went ahead and lost a tough to John Isner in Indian Wells, and he bounced back from it right away.

*****

Roger Federer
Federer, in describing the 2012 schedule at the start of the year, said it was going to be “brutal” with the Olympics squeezed into it. He has a lot on his plate, and he’s had to pick and choose. He said yes to Rotterdam and Davis Cup early in the year, but, barring an 11th-hour change of heart, he’s saying no to elongating his clay season by taking a wild card into Monte Carlo. It’s a trade-off: He saves himself a little for the long hot summer—a gold medal is his ultimate goal—but he’ll also come back to Madrid after having been away for five weeks. Plus, he gives himself less of a chance of pulling ahead of Nadal for the No. 2 spot at the French and possibly facing Andy Murray, rather than Rafa or Nole, in the semis. That scenario worked for well for Nadal last year.

Of course, Federer has always played well in Madrid—his only losses on clay there have been to Nadal. And the last time he skipped Monte Carlo, in 2009, he went on to beat Rafa in Madrid and the win the French Open and Wimbledon. On the one hand, Federer has performed well of late after he’s taken a sizable chunk of time off; on the other, it has taken him longer to round into clay form than it has, say, into indoor form.

Federer has likely prioritized Wimbledon and the Olympics over Roland Garros this year. The question could be whether that takes some pressure off of him and lets him play more freely over the clay season, or whether the quick run-up to Paris will be a little too quick this time around. I’m guessing he’ll get it sorted out by the first week of June again.

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