Clay Crystal Ball, Part II
Another day, another quartet of clay-season forecasts. I’ll stick with the alphabetical formula. Just like yesterday, that means we get three men and one woman. The ladies will stage a comeback in the second half of the week.
At this year’s Australian Open, I used Ferrer as a paradoxical example of how dominant the Big 4 have become. Here’s a guy who does everything you can do, is as fit and consistent as you can be, is always battling and putting himself in good positions, was ranked No. 5 in the world at the time, and yet there was still no way I was picking him to make the semifinals. A few hours after I wrote that, Ferrer played his heart out against Novak Djokovic in the quarters—and lost in straight sets.
So, as much as everyone likes and admires the guy—though I’m guessing that fans of the Top 3 wouldn’t adore Ferru quite as much if he actually knocked out their favorites now and then—it’s hard to have high hopes for him. Or at least higher hopes. Just look at his first three results of the 2011 clay season: In both Monte Carlo and Barcelona, Ferrer lost in the finals to Rafael Nadal; in Madrid he went out to Djokovic in three in the quarters.
How could that change in 2012? I think bigger hitters like del Potro, Isner, Berdych and Tsonga are more likely on paper to knock out one of the Top 4. And if they do, Ferrer will probably be there, waiting to take advantage. But for such an excellent competitor, he’s always had trouble closing—as in beating top guys in finals and semis, and even winning tiebreakers. Ferrer, who lacks a proverbial go-to weapon, has a relatively poor record in those clutch moments, so many of which are decided by big serves, and won by bigger servers.
I would caution Ferrer, who in 2011 played Barcelona and Nice, as well as the three Masters, before losing to Gael Monfils at the French Open, against overplaying. But can he overplay?
I know, you’re already tired, and you’ve always been skeptical, of the Isner-on-clay phenomenon. And it’s true, his reputation on dirt is based on precious few results—one of them, in fact, was a five-set loss, to Nadal at least year’s French Open.
But that match tells you why Isner must be considered, and why he’ll be an intriguing figure during the clay season and probably for the rest of the year. He is one of the very few men who really can upset the Big 4’s apple cart with his own good play, rather than having to rely on their bad play. This year he’s beaten Federer on clay, Djokovic on hard courts, and thrown in a nice follow-up to those with a win over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on dirt before an away Davis Cup audience. The clay bounce ends up in Isner’s strike zone and gives him an extra nanosecond to get his long limbs organized. And his serve is brutal on any court.
Caveat: Isner, as everyone knows, is prone to the marathon. One of those early at Roland Garros could spell his doom, either that day or in the next round. The two-and-done format of Davis Cup suits him perfectly; the seven-and-done format at a Slam, not so much. The play every day format at a clay Masters event? That might be even worse.
Positive: Apparently he’s no longer talking about flying from Houston back to Monte Carlo to play next week.
“I need to improve my fitness,” Kvitova said recently. After a spring of illness, injury, and defeat, the WTA's No. 3 has been trying to do that during a two-week training block in Turkey. She’s been running up hills, running in the sand, running long distance, and hitting the gym. “I’m exhausted every evening,” Kvitova says, “but hopefully it’s worth it.” If she doesn’t so sound so sure, Petra’s coach, David Kotyza, is more upbeat. He says the work is paying off. It’s not like she hasn’t had the rest, either. Kvitova was beaten in the second round in Indian Wells and in her opener in Miami.
Kvitova will have to be at her fittest for clay. While she still can end points quickly there, more balls will come back, and it’s a long slog from the Fed Cup semis on April 21-22 to Roland Garros, which, if Kvitova wants to win it, ends June 9. But she can’t completely commit to clay just yet; the Czech's Fed Cup tie will be played on an indoor hard court.
Which might not be a problem. Last year Kvitova came out of a Fed Cup tie on hard courts and won her next, and biggest, clay event, in Madrid. There she showed that at her best she can mow down any lineup—she beat No. 2 seed Vera Zvonareva, No. 6 seed Li Na, and No. 4 seed Victoria Azarenka in the final. A few weeks later, though, Kvitova showed that that type of run from her can also end at any time. After looking dominant through the first three rounds in Paris, and winning a 6-2 opening set against Na in the round of 16, Kvitova went away 6-1, 6-3.
In sum: She’ll be a long shot at most of these events, but she’s got a real shot at all of them.
Poor Muzz. This year, with the Olympics in London, he has to spend three weeks, rather than the usual two, having a nation turn its lonely eyes to him. No wonder British tennis is always a shambles: Who would want to subject themselves to that?
Which is why the Continental clay season might just feel like a godsend. This is a time and place where Murray, who is scheduled to begin in Monte Carlo next week, can lay low, hit a lot of balls, try to implement a few things with coach Ivan Lendl, knock off a Djoker or a Fed or a Rafa, and maybe even steal a Slam while no one is looking.
The latter is unlikely, of course—the image of Murray beating, say, Djokovic and Nadal in succession at Roland Garros is hard to conjure. But in 2011, he used this time of year to rescue himself from his post-Melbourne spring swoon, and he capped it by reaching his first semifinal in Paris. Along the way, he nearly ended Djokovic's win streak in a classic in Rome.
But he didn't end it. And I didn’t like the way he played Djokovic in this year's final in Miami. After being sporadically more aggressive with his forehand earlier in the event, he was content to rally and hope that he could out-grind a winded Djoker. That plan seems even less plausible on clay, where big forehands rule. Which is all the more reason for Murray to continue to try to dictate with that shot, even when it goes a little haywire.
I can see Murray coming out of this swing feeling primed for the Big Events of the summer. But to win any of these clay tournaments, he'll probably need some help.