I have to admit it: A part of me is going to take pleasure out of seeing all those Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic partisans go apoplectic when they scroll down this page and see the name “Rafael Nadal” endlessly repeated after the words “defending champion.”

Why shouldn’t Nadalistas enjoy an unassailable moment in the sun? Nadal is the most extraordinary clay-court player this world has ever seen. People don’t even bother to trot out Bjorn Borg comparisons any more; that ship has sailed. Nitpicking or sniping at Nadal between April and early June is like finding fault with the natural features of Mt. Everest. What does it really mean, and what are you going to do about about it?

Of course, this makes writing a theme-rich preview of the clay-court season a fool’s errand. Preview? How’s this: Nadal maybe throws a bone to Djokovic here or there, Federer gives some great press conferences, and Andy Murray loses matches he could win and says his game is coming along.

In other words, Nadal wins everything. Again.

But let’s give this a shot anyway, like we did yesterday, and try to have some fun with it. Perhaps we’ll find something in the 2013 results that points to a new twist we’ll see in the coming weeks.

Casablanca; defending champion Tommy Robredo: The defending champ jumped ship to the Houston event this year, where as the second seed he lost his opening-rounder to Santiago Girlado. Kevin Anderson was the top seed at this ATP 250 and likewise couldn’t survive his first match, losing to Victor Hanescu.

Anderson can’t be too happy about that, because a last-minute withdrawal by No. 2 seed Gael Monfils turned over his spot in the draw to lucky loser Andrey Kuznetsov. Someone to watch over the weekend? Federico Delbonis, who defeated Gilles Simon and, today, Hanescu to reach the semis.


Clay-Court Preview: Men Up

Clay-Court Preview: Men Up

Houston; defending champion John Isner: The world No. 9 and top seed went the way of Anderson, a victim of Germany’s Dustin Brown (in a final-set tiebreaker, go figure) in his opening match. The men to watch as this one unfolds are a pair of Spaniards who still have some good tread on the tires, Nicolas Almagro and Fernando Verdasco.

Monte Carlo; defending champ Novak Djokovic: Federer, perhaps in a giddy fit after he won a decisive fifth rubber in Davis Cup, has jumped into the fray with a wild card. But as great as Federer is, it seems likely he’ll end up collateral damage as Nadal tries to avenge his loss to Djokovic in last year’s final—a match that ended Rafa’s mind-boggling string of eight consecutive Monte Carlo titles. It was also the only loss on Nadal’s otherwise perfect spring record in 2013, which includes his title run at Roland Garros.

Despite Nadal’s persuasive history, Djokovic will have good reason to feel confident he can repeat as champion. He likes the venue, and Nadal will certainly be thinking—wincing, all the while—about their last meeting. Djokovic crushed Nadal in the Miami Masters final at the beginning of this month. Sure, that was on hard courts, but don’t for a moment think that Nadal takes much comfort from that.

Barcelona; defending champion Rafael Nadal: Sure, it’s just an ATP 500, but Nadal doesn’t give a hoot about that. It’s on red clay, it’s in his native Spain, and it gives him another opportunity to beat the stuffing about of David Ferrer, or Almagro (Barcelona doesn’t fit into the plans of Federer, Djokovic, Murray, or Stanislas Wawrinka). You have to wonder, doesn’t Rafa ever tire of it? The answer: No.

The tournament will have a solid field, though, with the likes of returning finalist Almagro, Ferrer, Tomas Berdych, Richard Gasquet, Marin Cilic, Fabio Fognini, and hard-charging Alexandr Dolgopolov.

Bucharest; defending champion Lukas Rosol: Even Nadal can’t win a tournament he didn’t play, but did the winner have to be the guy who ruined Rafa’s 2012 Wimbledon? Enjoy your schadenfreude while you can, folks; you won’t get many more chances in this space.

Bucharest is a mere ATP 250, but it generally attracts a good field and this year is no exception: Committed players include Simon, Monfils, Mikhail Youzhny, and Florian Mayer. Rosol has his work cut out if he hopes to repeat.

Oeiras; defending champ Stanislas Wawrinka: Wawrinka’s drive to his current, lofty position as world No. 3 and the game’s newest Grand Slam champ began here last year. It was his first tournament win since January 2011 (in Chennai), and immediately after winning this ATP 250, Wawrinka made the final in Madrid. (Losing to—SPOILER ALERT!—Nadal.) He was off and running.

There’s no reason Wawrinka shouldn’t win in Portugal again. The likely No. 2 seed will be world No. 12 Milos Raonic, after which is No. 20 Dmitry Tursunov, who’s not exactly famous for his clay-court prowess.

Munich; defending champion Tommy Haas: Sadly, the amazing Mr. Haas isn’t expected to defend the title he won in the city of his birth. The 36-year old ironman has been off the tour with a shoulder injury since he lost at Indian Wells. That leaves German hopes to Mayer, Philipp Kohlschreiber, and Alexander Zverev. Munich’s own will have their work cut out, though, as the international field includes Monfils, Fognini, Andreas Seppi, and Lleyton Hewitt.

Madrid; defending champion Rafael Nadal: This Masters 1000 is the tournament where most fans began to take Wawrinka seriously, even though Nadal made short work of him in the final, 6-2, 6-4. But comparatively speaking, Nadal has struggled at this tournament, even after it became an outdoor clay event in 2009. He’s won it “only” three times—the same number of wins that Federer has logged.

Now that the tournament is back on blue clay after a brief, terrible experiment last year with the red stuff . . .  Gotcha.

Seriously though, the slippery, fast blue clay of 2012 has been banished forever, but this is still the clay-court tournament where aggressive players are likely to do best because of the way the ball flies at Madrid’s altitude. That’s welcome news to Djokovic, Federer, and the likes of Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. But we could also see a breakout here by Grigor Dimitrov (who beat Djokovic here last year), Ernests Gulbis, or even Raonic.


Clay-Court Preview: Men Up

Clay-Court Preview: Men Up

Rome; defending champ Rafael Nadal: Last year’s tournament nicely illustrated the greatest problem Federer has had in his career on clay. He beat the pants off everyone he faced, but then Nadal carved him up into pieces with no trouble whatsoever, 6-1, 6-3.

The form chart sometimes takes a beating in the Rome Masters 1000. Last year, Djokovic was knocked out in the quarters by Berdych, and Benoit Paire and Marcel Granollers fought it out for another semifinal berth. Federer advanced to play Paire in the semis at the expense of Jerzy Janowicz, which isn’t a terrible draw no matter how you cut it.

But at this time of year, the only player with whom Nadal can be compared (and it’s not every year) is Serena Williams. Nadal swept Madrid and Rome, losing just 10 games between the two finals. Serena didn’t drop a set, either, against final-round opponents Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka at those same tournaments, but she lost one fewer game than Nadal.

Advantage, Williams.

Dusseldorf; defending champion Juan Monaco: This is one of the two “panic attack” ATP 250s played the week before the French Open—a week when most contenders choose to rest. Unless a struggling marquee name chooses to take a wild card, Dusseldorf will feature the likes of Monaco, Kohlschreiber, Ivo Karlovic, and Nikolay Davydenko. Also scheduled to begin a comeback at Dusseldorf: Janko Tipsarevic.

By this time in the clay-court season, the main themes for the French Open have been developed, and any players who featured themselves contenders on clay have had their say. But Dusseldorf could turn on the spigots for someone. There’s no better teacher—or motivator—than winning.

Nice; defending champion Albert Montanes: This ATP 250 has produced some worthy clay-court champions, including Montanes, Gasquet, and two-time winner Almagro. The highest-ranked entrant at the moment is Isner, but Raonic is in as well, long with French staples Julien Benneteau, Paire, and Simon.

The winner at Nice is guaranteed to enter the French Open with a great head of steam, and when you think about the boost in confidence the finalists must get, as well as the alternating days of play at Roland Garros, even the fatigue factor ought to be manageable. Bottom line: Unless you’re a Top 5 player, playing Nice or Dusseldorf isn’t a bad idea at all.