Terra Incognita

by: Peter Bodo | April 14, 2013

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Tomorrow, after a few weeks of throat-clearing in places like Monterrey, Katowice, and Casablanca (sounds like a law firm, doesn’t it?), the clay-court season begins in earnest at Monte Carlo. This week has been a little like the calm before the storm — but don’t suggest that to the warriors who slugged it out in the red dirt in Houston this week.

Be honest now, can’t you just tick off the quarterfinals of Roland Garros in your head? Nadal and Berdych, Federer and Djokovic, Almagro and Murray; maybe even Federer and a surprise guest to be named later. Raonic? But let’s cut to the chase: does anyone not expect to see Nadal bolo-throwing in the final?

Now Houston, that’s been a whole different story.

Check out the Houston draw to see what I mean. Right from the start, it’s been a tournament of the struggling (Fernando Verdasco, Juan Monaco, John Isner), the questionable (Gael Monfils, James Blake, Robby Ginepri), and the eternally frustrated hopeful (Ryan Harrison, Jesse Levine, and — egads! —Lleyton Hewitt). Anybody, including Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo, had a shot at winning this thing.

Admit it. It’s fun, as well as refreshing, to watch a match, or even an entire tournament, not just on the off-chance that the big dog will get whipped, but to see which of two well-matched puppies can steal the bone. Isn’t a tournament supposed to blow up in our faces now and then?

I know some people who are already writing off Monte Carlo, admittedly a gem of an event, simply because Nadal has won there eight times (he’s 44-1 and has hauled away almost $5 million in prize money, which puts him right up there with the heiresses, tax cheats, and arms dealers who also like to hang their hats in the sunny principality). Besides, Federer would rather stay home, wrestling on the carpet with his girls, and top-seed and world no. 1 Novak Djokovic is questionable. What, David Ferrer is going to beat Nadal?

Djokovic’s case is particularly interesting. You know, you don’t get to go live in Monte Carlo without a few strings attached. Those folks tend to expect that you’ll play their tournament since they’re nice enough to let you live there. I don’t think Djokovic will risk his health just to satisfy his Monegasque patrons, but I certainly can see him more or less mailing in a second rounder because of a tender ankle and the long road leading to Paris disappearing on the horizon.

If the action in the week to come makes Monte Carlo look like an ATP 250 masquerading as a Masters event held in honor of Rafa, it will enhance the growing sense that the only real “tune-up” tournaments for the French Open are the back-to-back Masters events at Madrid and Rome. That’s because the rest of April after Monte Carlo is given over to three ATP 250s and a lone ATP 500 (Barcelona). That once familiar sense that the players are marching toward Roland Garros in lock-step is fading; these days, the emerging mandate when it comes to scheduling is “Every man for himself!”

This would seem to be a windfall for the two big ATP 1000s that take place in May (Madrid and Rome). But those tournaments need to look at the relationship of Indian Wells and Miami for a reality check. We’re now in an era when marquee players seem perfectly content to play a single warm-up event for any given major, and that’s a big change.  Players don’t need that much time to adapt to clay (it’s kind of like riding a bike; the ability comes back), and their sense of what it takes to be adequately “match tough” for a major has been drastically boiled down to a pure concentrate.

That brings us to Andy Murray, who took a page from the Djokovic playbook for 2011 and has made the most dramatic (as least visibly) progress in transforming himself from a tennis player into an athlete who plays tennis. This is one of the least reported impacts that Ivan Lendl seems to have had on Murray.

It isn’t like Murray was negligent in his training before, nor even that Lendl is bringing  new and more productive exercises to Murray’s training sessions (although he could be). It’s more that Lendl remains the best Open-era example of a guy who put his faith in fitness, and found it a transformative experience. He didn’t become a dominant champion until he developed his Iron Man sensibilities, and those he made up as he went along for it was not yet the age of the entourage and fitness specialist.

It sure looks like that has rubbed off on Murray, which may go a long way to explaining why he’s played surprisingly little tennis this year — especially for a guy who just hit his stride last fall. He addressed that decision last week after the Miami final, when he was asked why he vanished for so many weeks after playing the Australian final. He was training during those weeks, and re-charging his batteries. He clearly thought it a good play after he won in Miami: “I think just general freshness (helped me), really. You know, a lot of the guys were maybe a little bit tired, because after Australia a lot of guys play three tournaments between Australia and Indian Wells. I felt fairly fresh this week.”

Now Murray is positioned as the player who will be laboring under the most intriguing circumstances in the coming weeks, unless you to count injury as a subject worth chewing on. Murray himself has admitted that his clay-court game hasn’t really measured up; the red dirt remains terra incognita. Murray did reach the semifinals at Roland Garros in 2011 (l. to Nadal) but he still has just one win over a top-ten player on clay (that same year he tagged Nikolay Davydenko at Monte Carlo). “I can play good tennis on clay,” Murray recently told The Express. “But I have to work extremely hard to get ready.”

Murray also has said that he wanted to avoid “overplaying” at the start of the year, even though the first-quarter tournaments are on the hard courts he prefers, and on which he is most deadly. This year, he’s already been a Grand Slam finalist and a Masters 1000 winner in just five tournaments. He’s 19-2 on the year and his only losses were to quality opponents, Djokovic and Juan Martin del Potro. Murray has amassed 26 titles thus far in his career, but none on clay.

Of course, the 800-pound gorilla in the room when it comes to handicapping the upcoming clay-court tournaments is Nadal. Should Djokovic’s ankle eliminate him from contention in Monte Carlo, it will open a new and basically unsatisfying narrative thread for the spring, but nothing — not Djokovic’s ankle, not dogged David Ferrer’s trashings, not Tsonga’s touch or even the state of Murray game — is going to overshadow the main story of the next two months.  Murray, for one, is already hedging his bet.  “Clay is the most challenging surface,” he told The Express. “And with Rafa coming back it will be tough.”

It’s a good tournament that Monte Carlo, but it sure ain’t no Houston.

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