Let the Drama on Dirt Begin

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Four storylines to follow as the tours slide into the clay season. (AP Photo)

For those of us watching from the U.S., the clay swing used to be a time when the season got away from us. The tours traveled to Europe, and except for a few stray SportsCenter highlights, we mostly lost sight of the players. All of that has changed over the last decade. One of the defining features of this era has been the new centrality of the spring clay season; like the temperature in the air, these are the months when the tennis season heats up, and a dramatic arc develops. Ten years ago, we watched Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer take their duel on dirt across Europe. Earlier this decade, we saw Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova turn their clay careers around. And now we follow Novak Djokovic’s annual quest to win the one major, the French Open, that has eluded him. 

Starting next week in his hometown of Monte Carlo, Djokovic’s clay campaign will take center stage again. Here’s a look ahead at how that, and three other story lines, might play out on clay this spring.

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Nole’s Next Best Chance

If Roland Garros began today, would Djokovic be even more heavily favored to win his first title there than he was last year? The answer, as hard as it may be to believe, is yes. In 2015, Djokovic entered the clay season having lost just one match; he’ll do the same thing in 2016. Last year, though, there was still one obstacle remaining for Djokovic: He had never beaten Rafael Nadal in Paris. Now he has. Despite Rafa’s nine French titles, Djokovic stands alone as the favorite.

In 2015, Djokovic won in Monte Carlo and Rome, and skipped Madrid. He says he may do the same thing this time, but for now he’s entered in all three events. It may be tempting to say that his pre-Paris results don’t matter, but any loss could puncture his current, all-encompassing air of invulnerability. Judging by the way he fought to win in Indian Wells and Miami, two titles he hardly needed on his résumé, Djokovic understands this, and he’ll go all-out to win every event he enters.

Still, his success will be determined by what happens in Paris, and part of that will always be beyond his control. Last year, despite his immaculate preparation and his straight-set win over Nadal in the quarters. Djokovic was tripped up by having to play a two-day semifinal against Andy Murray, before turning around and facing a red-hot Stan Wawrinka the next afternoon in the final. All of which means that, if you’ve grown bored with Djokovic winning everything, this is the time of year to tune in again. Getting what he wants in Paris will never be easy.

Vika’s Vow

After Victoria Azarenka’s win in the Miami final, ESPN commentator Brad Gilbert asked her why she’s never had all that much success on clay. By the time she reached the interview room half an hour later, Azarenka sounded offended.

“Definitely very motivated for clay season,” she said. “I’ve always been a high favorite of proving people wrong, and that’s also what motivates me a lot.

“Going into [the] clay season, people say it’s not my favorite surface and whatever. I’m going to work pretty hard to make sure it’s going to be my favorite surface.”

Azarenka is also motivated because she knows that if she’s going to keep her current, long-delayed, hard-earned momentum going through the next two months, she’s going to have to do it on dirt. Her record on the stuff is mixed: She has won just won title on clay, but she has reached the finals in Rome and Madrid, and the semis in Paris. Gilbert wasn’t wrong; that record should be better. I’m guessing by the end of this spring, it will be. We’ve watched Serena and Sharapova remake their clay games and win French Open titles; it will be interesting to see Azarenka try to follow in the slide-steps in 2016.

Decline of the Dominants?

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.

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