Our panel of experts considers two players with a lot to lose—and two with a lot to gain—during the heart of the clay-court season.
QUESTION 1: Will Simona Halep win her first major at Roland Garros?
(Halep has 3,070 ranking points to defend between April 23 and June 10.)
Mary Carillo: If I had to guess which major she wins first—because I think she will be a Grand Slam champion—I still think it’s going to be Roland Garros. We’ve seen players have cathartic experiences at tournaments that once broke their heart. I think Halep is a terrific hard-court player, too, but clay is where she has been able to play her best tennis. She lacks a go-to, big shot, but the surface doesn’t
demand one. I hope she adds more slices, drop shots and lobs, which are weapons on clay.
Justin Gimelstob: The French Open is a tough tournament to get through. I think Halep has the game to do it, but it’s going to take a big effort for someone her size. Then there’s the mental component of what she’s been through in Paris. It will be a big challenge to overcome.
An an-court interview with Simona Halep in Miami:
Nina Pantic: Halep proved in Melbourne that she’s tougher than ever, both mentally and physically. She’s reached two Roland Garros finals, and clay plays to her strengths by dulling the power of bigger-hitting opponents. This is her best shot at winning a Slam.
Ed McGrogan: Halep has suffered heartbreaking losses in two of the last four Grand Slam finals, but at least she impressed in defeat at the Australian Open. It’s hard to discern what that bodes for Roland Garros. She has the game to win in Paris, but I don’t think she actually will.
QUESTION 2: After a breakthrough year, will Alexander Zverev struggle to maintain his high ranking?
(Zverev has 1,485 ranking points to defend between April 23 and June 10.)
Mary Carillo: I interviewed Zverev last year and said to him, “Is Juan Carlos Ferrero trying to make you play more Spanish—which is to say, is he trying to make you play more of a running game?” And he said, “God, he’s doing the opposite. He’s telling me I’m running too much now. I should be able to hit my shots, control the center of the court and play quicker points than I’m playing.” Zverev and Ferrero have since split, but the point stands. Once the youngster starts becoming a better problem‑solver over three out of five sets, he’ll have some breakthroughs.
Justin Gimelstob: He had so much success in 2017, and his ranking points were fairly well distributed. He’s got such an opportunity to increase his point total at the majors, where he’ll be seeded very high. How does he build? It’s not easy to do in this era. But when you look at Zverev’s game, his foundation is so good, and so is his technique.
A studio interview with Alexander Zverev at the 2017 Citi Open:
Ed McGrogan: Zverev had a slow start to the season, but clay should serve him well. He’s settled into a comfort zone from the baseline, and his giant strokes from both wings will cause everyone problems, even on the slow surface.
Nina Pantic: Zverev will have little trouble holding onto a Top 10 ranking, but Top 5 may be a lot to ask. He’s still so young, and he hasn’t experienced any Grand Slam success. It’s bound to happen, and when it does, his ranking will get a boost. For now, expect some dips, such as when he’ll try to defend a big title like Rome for the first time.
QUESTION 3: What kind of momentum can Madison Keys generate during the clay-court swing?
(Keys has 81 ranking points to defend between April 23 and June 10.)
Ed McGrogan: The French Open is the only major at which Keys hasn’t reached a quarterfinal, but she made the fourth round there in 2016. She’s capable of a deep run at the ultimate test of clay-court tennis, and she has the weaponry to make noise at tournaments leading into Paris.
Mary Carillo: She has the game that allows her to hit right through the clay. If she goes in with the right mindset—that she belongs—her game is going to work. It’s all about commitment.
Justin Gimelstob: Keys is capable of winning anywhere. Clay will be the most challenging because she needs to be patient, and consistency is at more of a premium. There are very few times Keys goes on the court in which she doesn’t control her own destiny. Even though clay can be a trouble spot, she’s still capable of big results.
Nina Pantic: She plays a wild, fast game—and the faster the court, the better. Still, she’ll have an advantage of having little to lose on a surface where little is expected from Americans.Keys’ real point opportunities will come on grass and hard courts, but clay presents an opportunity.
QUESTION 4: Is Sam Querrey a legit hope for U.S. tennis on clay?
(Querrey has 145 ranking points to defend between April 23 and June 10.)
Justin Gimelstob: Querrey has won a title on clay, and he’s twice reached the final in Houston. It’s the most challenging surface for him, but also one that he can do well on with his big serve and forehand. He also moves well for a big guy.
Ed McGrogan: He’s gotten better with age and may be the most underrated U.S. men’s player in the post-Andy Roddick generation. He should be good for a one-event surge on clay.
Mary Carillo: Americans used to detest spending months in Europe, but I think that’s changed, largely because of technology. They don’t feel like they’re so far away anymore. And because of that, I think they can take themselves more seriously on red clay.
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—ATP Houston Outer Courts (4/9-4/13)
Catch all the action from the U.S. Men's Clay Court Championship with outer court coverage live on Tennis Channel Plus beginning Monday April 9 at 4 p.m. ET
—ATP Marrakech Final (4/15)
Don’t miss the Grand Prix Hassan II final live on Tennis Channel Plus Sunday April 15 at 9 a.m. ET
—ATP Monte-Carlo (4/15-4/22)
Watch first to last ball of the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters live on Tennis Channel Plus beginning Sunday April 15 at 7 a.m. ET