With Djokovic and Azarenka in the ascendancy, where does that leave those two other recent powers in Paris, Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams?
Serena, of course, is still the player to beat coming into the clay season. Since 2011, she has won Madrid twice, Rome twice and the French Open twice; her comeback-filled title run in Paris, straight from her sick bed, may have been 2015's most dramatic performance. But it will also be a hard one to repeat. This year’s clay swing is crucial for Serena; if the tiny cracks that we’ve seen in her game since last September are real, they’ll likely become more apparent under the stress of playing on what is still the least-comfortable surface for her.
As for Nadal, he’ll always be a player to beat on clay; he’s “the best in the history” on dirt, as he would say (not referring to himself, of course), and that isn’t going to change. Now, though, as he approaches both his 30th birthday, and the two-year-anniversary of his last Slam title, the expectations surrounding him have changed. Where we once assumed Nadal would run the spring clay table, now we should expect to see more mortal-like ups and downs from him. That’s what has happened with him on hard courts so far in 2016; if you think he’ll naturally improve on clay, that wasn’t the case last year: In 2015, for the first time, Nadal didn’t win any spring clay events, losing in the semis in Monte Carlo, the final in Madrid, the quarters in Rome and the quarters in Paris. I expect some better results from Rafa in 2016, but I also expect some worse.
Is There Another Wawrinka in the House?
By which I mean: Can anyone on either tour pull off a season-changing surprise this spring?
Wawrinka, of course, remains the most likely to repeat himself on the men’s side. He hasn’t had a banner 2016 so far, but if he gets hot, all bets are off, and you can throw his previous results away. Last year, Andy Murray won two clay titles and reached the French Open semis; I could see him upsetting Djokovic in Madrid or Rome, but not in Paris. Kei Nishikori nearly won a title on the quicker clay courts in Madrid two years ago, but he remains a long shot on slow surfaces, especially against Djokovic. Milos Raonic is hardly a dyed in the wool dirtballer, but the 2014 French Open quarterfinalist has the weapons to surprise. The same goes for Nick Kyrgios, who beat Roger Federer in Madrid last year. Belgium's David Goffin has had a career year on hard courts so far in 2016, but it's clay where he may be most dangerous. And we know Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gael Monfils will get the French fans' hopes up, before ultimately dashing them again, at Roland Garros.
On the women’s side, challenges to Serena and Azarenka could come from Petra Kvitova, who beat Serena on her way to winning Madrid last year; Garbiñe Muguruza, who did the same to Williams at the French two years ago, and who showed signs of life for the first time this year in Miami; Simona Halep, the 2014 Roland Garros runner-up, who like Muguruza is also fighting to find her form; and Timea Bacsinszky, who had Serena on the ropes in last year’s French semis. As for Angelique Kerber, she’ll be an interesting case this spring: She won two titles on dirt last season, in Charleston and Stuttgart, but hasn’t been past the fourth round at the French Open since 2012. Will her expectations rise with her No. 2 ranking?
Around the locker room, though, the player most often touted on either tour for future clay success is Dominic Thiem. It’s not hard to see why. The 22-year-old Austrian has won four clay-court events over the last two years; his ranking is up to No. 14; and he held his own against Djokovic on hard courts in Miami last week. Thiem will be the young gun to watch over the next two months, and it’s a near-certainty that we’ll be watching him challenge for the French Open title for years to come. His story may start now.