Normally this would be a day for tennis fans to celebrate. We get, all at once, the return to Monte Carlo; the return of Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal to the tour; and the return of spring that both of those events traditionally signal.
But this year, so far, there’s a less celebratory air. Not only are there no fans in the tournament's stadium court, the seats themselves have been eliminated. That’s not a surprise by now, but I think most of us hoped that the world would be closer to normal at this point in 2021. What we see instead is evidence of the new lockdowns in Europe, and a crisis that promises to continue through the year.
We’ve also seen evidence that those lockdowns, and our continued vigilance against the coronavirus, are as necessary as ever. Yesterday, No. 2 seed Daniil Medvedev tested positive and had to withdraw. He practiced with Nadal the day before, and we can only hope that Medvedev is OK, and that nobody else is infected. But if tennis players needed any more evidence that (a) bubbles are important, and (b) getting vaccinated is a good idea, Medvedev’s case should provide it for them.
The bubble in Monte Carlo was extended to allow the players who live in the Principality a chance to stay at home during the tournament. Medvedev was one of those players, and while we don’t know how he contracted the virus, his case is an obvious argument for keeping restrictions tight in the future. This will surely come up again at Wimbledon, where players have already expressed a desire to rent homes in the area, and the tournament has expressed a desire to house them all at a central location. Post-Medvedev, erring on the side of safety has to be the answer.
Medvedev in Monte Carlo, prior to his withdrawal from the tournament due to a positive COVID-19 test. (Getty Images)
All of that said, it was nice to see Djokovic and Nadal go back to work today. Novak beat a good young opponent in Jannik Sinner, and Rafa looked liked Rafa on clay—i.e., unbeatable—against Federico Delbonis. I was amazed all over again about two things: The 33-year-old Djokovic’s ability to defend against Sinner, who may be the hardest hitter on tour; and the 34-year-old Nadal’s ability to continue to generate lethal pace on his forehand, even when he has no pace to work with. Their only concession to Father Time seems to be in their hair: We’ve seen Rafa lose his for a while now, but was that a fleck of gray I spotted in Djokovic’s famously thick black coif today?
Joel, how did Monte Carlo strike you today, compared to other years?
You’re so right that the feel of Monte Carlo is so much different than usual. In prior years, there’s a colorful, lively sparkle to it all—orange clay, the bright yellow haze of European spring, the blue of the nearby Mediterranean. Those factors are still present, but they’re also shaped by the looming presence of the pandemic and the many forms of uncertainty that accompany it. Medvedev and Djokovic have had COVID-19, and many others have tested positive, including Grigor Dimitrov, Simona Halep and Madison Keys. In both the short-term and the long-term, it will be fascinating to see how this affects each of these world-class athletes.
At one level, of course, players and fans alike are grateful simply for the chance to play and watch such great tennis. There was no European spring clay-court season last year, but instead, a few events compressed into September, prior to Roland Garros. Now, at least in theory, all will be able to take in the full range of tournaments as the tour treks across Europe.
The bubbles also simultaneously create comfort and stress. I know from being around many tournaments that players really relish unwinding at spots far removed from the tennis. Who can blame them for wanting a change of scenery, an exotic meal, a shopping spree? Instead, they’re hunkered down, the tennis right in front of them. I’m intrigued to learn more about how they’re finding new ways to relax away from the pressures of competition.
Then again, perhaps events of the last year have cast pressure in a different light—at least for now.
In purple and pink, Nadal pounced at a tournament he knows extremely well. (Getty Images)
And yet, through all that, there again were Djokovic and Nadal playing their open matches, not missing a beat, as reliable and sure-footed as always. It was particularly impressive to watch Djokovic handle Sinner so smoothly. Sinner may be the future, but in the meantime, the present looks pretty darn formidable.
Steve, what do you find most enjoyable about the European clay-court season—even in the current world?
I’m old enough as a tennis fan to still think of the clay-court season as something extra, a bonus, a phenomenon that we’re lucky to witness. The biggest tournaments at this time of year have been around for more than a century, but they were largely invisible in the U.S. when I was growing up. Until the advent of Tennis Channel, we saw little beyond the finals of Monte Carlo and Rome, and some years we only got highlights of those tournaments. I can still remember my feeling of slack-jawed wonder when TC broadcast the entirety of the Italian Open in 2003. It was like an alternative universe of tennis that I had only read about had opened up before my eyes. Eighteen years later, I haven’t wholly shaken that feeling.
I’m not sure I would call clay my favorite surface; I like grass just as much. But men’s tennis during the clay season has two things I look forward to each year: (1) The stylishness and physicality of the tennis that’s played on it; and (2) The stakes that rise, week by week, as Nadal and his closest competitor—Roger Federer in the old days, Djokovic now—jockey for position before Roland Garros. At no other time of the season do the tour and a Slam work as seamlessly to create and sustain drama as they do in the spring.
We're approaching the 12-year anniversary of this moment in Madrid. (Getty Images)
What’s interesting to me is how timeless the men’s game on clay has become. The same players have been caught in the same dynamic since Nadal first swept the clay events in 2005. In the past, the rise and fall of different men’s eras helped us tell time and imagine that life was progressing. Borg/Mac/Jimbo gave way to Lendl/Becker/Edberg, which gave way to Sampras/Agassi/Kuerten, which gave way to Federer/Nadal/Djokovic, which, after neatly two decades, has yet to give way to anything. In my mind, this makes events and matches that happened a decade ago—like, say, the epic semifinal that Nadal and Djokovic played in Madrid in 2009—seem as if they could have happened yesterday.
It has become one long mega-era, and yet I’m still not tired of seeing how it plays out—that may be even more true in this time of general uncertainty. Give me as many Nadal-Djokovic epics as possible this spring, please.
How about you, Joel, what intrigues you about clay this year?
No question, as a start, Nadal-Djokovic is always compelling, no matter what the surface. I’ll be curious to see what Djokovic took away from last year’s Roland Garros final—and perhaps, what tactical or even technical enhancements he’ll bring to his game this spring.
The mystery man of 2021 is Dominic Thiem. Who’d have thought that by April he’d have only played four tournaments? He’s a player I very much enjoy watching, largely because he builds points in a different way than most contemporary clay-courters, from the sizzle of his one-handed backhand to the lively forehand. But I do wonder what’s going on with Thiem, both physically and mentally.
After a breakthrough season, we haven't seen much of Thiem in 2021. (Getty Images)
While the men’s clay-court season will still largely point towards Nadal and Djokovic, the women’s clay-court season is incredibly wide open. In large part, I find that more intriguing than the men’s circuit. Simona Halep, Ash Barty, Bianca Andreescu, Naomi Osaka: those are just four great champions eager to make strong statements. Then there are others who’ve won majors—Iga Swiatek, Sofia Kenin, Petra Kvitova, Serena Williams—all at different stages of their respective careers. I also enjoy seeing the many different playing styles employed by these great players. There’s lots of variety in spin, speed, court positioning, as well as a significant increase in the quality of serves. So it will be fascinating to see how that plays out on the clay this spring.