So after a winter of uncertainty we’re back where we were in 2005, 2006, 2007, and pretty much every year since. It’s April, the men are swinging into Monte Carlo, and the world’s No. 1 player is wondering if he can find a way to overcome the world’s No. 1 clay-courter over the next two months.
In the old days, that No. 1 player was Roger Federer; for the last three years it’s been Novak Djokovic. The No. 1 clay-courter in both cases has been Rafael Nadal. While Federer and Djokovic have each recorded a couple of wins on dirt over Rafa, and Federer snuck in a French Open title in 2009, this has remained the Spaniard’s season. To say the least: This year Nadal will go for his 9th title in Monte Carlo, 8th in Barcelona, 7th in Rome, 3rd in Hamburg/Madrid, and 8th in Paris. Good luck to Nole, and everyone else.
Here’s a look at the upsides and downsides that each of the top contenders brings with him to the European dirt.
For Him: He has made the French Open, and the completion of his personal career Grand Slam, his top priority for 2013. And while he lost the final last year to Nadal in four sets, he came away feeling like he could win if they met on the same day in Paris again. Djokovic is No. 1, he’s reached the semifinals or better at the last 12 majors, and he has a 3-2 record against Nadal in Grand Slam finals. If he can get a win over Rafa in Madrid or Rome, he’ll feel better about his chances at Roland Garros. Last year he never got that win.
Against Him: Djokovic’s clay preparation took a hit when he injured his ankle in Davis Cup this weekend. And while he may seem like a greater threat to Nadal on clay than Federer, the two have identical records on the surface against Rafa: A dismal 2-12.
For Him: I’m tempted just to say: He’s Rafael Nadal, and this is clay. Which really is all you need to know. But I will stop to note that he also has his all-important confidence back after Indian Wells. I had thought that, as in 2010, he would have to wait to Monte Carlo to find it again, but he got there early.
Against Him: Nadal is at his best when he’s on a mission, when he’s proving something to himself, roaring back from injury and doubt, or aiming to conquer a nemesis like Djokovic. He’s coming back from injury again in 2013, obviously, but I wonder if he’ll feel the same need to prove himself yet again in Paris, now that he has the all-time title record there, and is the undisputed “best in the history” on clay.
Two thought experiments, just for fun: What would happen if Nadal actually lost at Monte Carlo this time? And what would happen if Rafa, who is currently ranked No. 5, ends up being seeded fifth at the French Open? Would either of those things make any difference? I'm thinking the former, but not the latter, might.
For Him: Murray has been talking a fairly big game about his chances on clay—whether that was out of real conviction, or as an excuse to skip last weekend’s Davis Cup tie on indoor hard courts, I don’t know. Maybe both. What we do know is that Murray is No. 2 in the world, he’s coming off a title in Miami, and that he and Ivan Lendl are planning for a more serious run at clay this time around. He has put a scare into Rafa on dirt before, and there’s no reason why he can’t put an even bigger one into Djokovic.
Against Him: Murray has never reached the final of a clay-court tournament. He’s 0-6 against Nadal and Djokovic on the surface. And there's always Wimbledon on the horizon.
For Him: Federer, if his schedule holds, will make his return to defend his Madrid title after two months away. He’ll be rested, and the “monster” of expectations that has followed him for years probably won't be as fierce. But he’ll want to shake the rust off quickly. Federer is currently eighth (a.k.a. last) in the ATP’s Race to London, and he has champion’s points to defend in Madrid.
Against Him: Last year he won in Madrid on blue clay, then was beaten on the red stuff twice by Djokovic in straight sets. This time Madrid will be red, too.
For Him: Ferrer likes clay, too, and he’s pushed Nadal on the stuff many times before falling short. He should be motivated to push again and keep his fourth-seed spot in Paris. He’s also 7-1 for his career against Djokovic and Murray on clay.
Against Him: He just pulled out of Monte Carlo, though that shouldn’t hurt him ranking-wise; he lost early there last year, while Nadal won the tournament. What’s worse for Ferru in the long run is that he’s 1-13 against Nadal on dirt, and he’s never beaten Federer anywhere.
For Him: He’s better than you might think on clay, both the red and the blue kind. He has been to the semis in Paris, and last year he reached the final in Madrid (lost to Federer), the semis in Monte Carlo (beat Murray, lost to Djokovic), and the quarters in Rome (lost to Nadal).
Against Him: He’s 0-7 on clay against Nadal, Djokovic, and Federer.
Juan Martin del Potro
For Him: After Indian Wells, he knows he can play with the big guys again. He has four career titles on clay, and he’s been to the semis of the French Open.
Against Him: Delpo has never reached the final of a clay-court Masters event, and he’s 1-9 against the Big 4 on dirt.
For Him: He may be playing the best tennis of his career right now, and he has had success in Monte Carlo and Rome in the past, including wins over Federer in both places.
Against Him: The last time he reached the final of a clay Masters event was all the way back in 2005, when Madrid was still played in Hamburg.
For Him: Every one of this Spaniard's 12 titles and six final-round appearances has come on clay.
Against Him: None of those titles or final-round appearances have come at a Masters event, let alone a major.
There are more names that could be spoken of here: Haas, Gulbis, Tsonga, Tipsarevic, Wawrinka, and others, but I can’t get to everyone. Feel free to speculate about any dark horses. It’s been a long time since we had any surprises at this time of year.