The Round Robin: What awaits the clay-court swing?

The Round Robin: What awaits the clay-court swing?

After a hiatus in 2020 due to COVID-19, the spring European clay-court season is back. It kicked off with Roland-Garros announcing it would start one week later. Might there be more surprises? We gathered our team to address two big picture questions.

After a hiatus in 2020 due to COVID-19, the spring European clay-court season is back. It kicked off with Roland Garros announcing it would start one week later. Might there be more surprises? We gathered our team to address two big picture questions.   

1. What factors will come into play as the pros navigate the pandemic and the European clay court season?

Ed McGrogan: If Roland Garros can be pushed back less than two months from its scheduled start, anything can happen in the interim. I get the sense that the pros are growing tired of this general uncertainty, justified or not. Will tennis feel as important to them as it typically does during this stretch of the season?

Kamakshi Tandon: This is the most physically demanding part of the season, yet most players will be coming in having playing much less than usual—there was the two-week Aussie quarantine, no Indian Wells, and a lot of no-shows in Miami. Fitness and mental toughness will be important in lengthy contests. But it’s the top players that have played sparingly who have won big events during the pandemic; experience and sharpness also count for a lot.

Steve Tignor: If Monte Carlo is any indication, the players look like they'll have to go back to playing without fans. They already knew they'd be earning less money as they travel from city to city, but now it looks as if they'll have to do it in silence, too.

Peter Bodo: Mental stamina could be an even more critical factor than it usually is in the event-rich ATP segment, especially for those consistently overshadowed by Djokovic and Nadal. Bubble protocols and a period of potentially wet, somber skies can put anyone in a funk. That holds true for the WTA as well, although by-and-large the women have generally responded to the challenges of the pandemic and health protocols with greater flexibility and resolve.

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Joel Drucker:  It’s all about constant adjustments. Clay, historically so physically demanding, is easy compared to the constant uncertainty of traveling the world amid a pandemic. Here is where I think such techniques as meditation, journaling and anything else that boosts tranquility will be vital. It’s funny, though: While player support teams have gotten so much bigger, maintaining calm is very much a personal act, requiring deep forms of self-reliance. It’s up to the player to find and execute the best way.     

Jon Levey: Successful clay court tennis revolves around balanced footwork, adjusting to bad bounces and controlled aggression. Much of the same could be said about how pros need to handle the new normal on the tours, where the only certainty seems to be uncertainty. The players who best slide by—clay humor!—the inevitable obstacles undeterred will give themselves the best chance of making the season a profitable one.

Matt Fitzgerald: For anyone working, the mental battle continues to be as persuasive, if not more so, than intellectual and physical competencies. The main difference? The world witnesses how tennis players are handling change on a daily basis. Turning to clay, several European countries are in lockdown and RG has already delayed its start. The power to stay present on what’s happening inside a 78x27 foot box and quell uncontrollable variables—that’s how matches are won.

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Cale Hammond: By the looks of things, given the full-week torrential downpour forecast in Monte Carlo, I am fascinated to see how players deal with tournament conditions after missing a full clay court season in 2020. It’s early, but the Barcelona forecast is predicting a full week of rain for next week. Starting and stopping due to rain is one thing, but doing so within the confines of a bubble adds an extra element of boredom and loneliness. Players who triumph on clay this season will be the ones who best deal with adversity.

Ashley Ndebele: With the ATP Tour reportedly experimenting with a relaxed bubble at the Roland Garros tune-ups, it should be interesting to see how the men will adjust to the clay-court major’s protocols, which most likely won’t be as lax as the smaller events.

Jordaan Sanford: The players will face many of the same factors that they’ve come across in the past year. However, it will be interesting to see what potential benefits vaccinated players will receive over those that are not. It’s not just about what happens inside the lines anymore, but the ability to adapt continues to hold more weight than ever.

David Kane: Thanks to the pandemic pushing the 2020 French Open into last fall; this is the quickest turnaround between two clay court swings in recent memory. Will those able to adjust to the cooler October conditions be as effective this spring, or will the warmer weather yield a different crop of contenders?

2. What single player, man or woman, most holds your interest during this time of year?

Ed McGrogan: It remains Rafa. We keep waiting—rather than hoping, to be clear—for him to slow down on the slow surface. But it hasn’t happened, and there’s no indication that he will this year. Which means that whenever he does, it will be a surprise—one of the main reasons we watch sports.

Steve Tignor: I'd like to say I'm going to follow someone off the beaten path, but Rafael Nadal is still the man for this season. Aside from all of his records, his game on dirt is more artistic than it is on other surfaces. There's no reason to miss the King of Clay while we have the chance.

Joel Drucker: Bianca Andreescu. Power and precision, variety and movement, focus and intensity—she has so much that could take the game to new levels. So I can’t wait to see how this all plays out on clay, where fitness and health become incredibly important. Perhaps most of all, I want to see Andreescu not get injured once between now and the end of Roland Garros.  

Kamakshi Tandon: The clay season pretty much is a single player at this point, so it’s tough to say what other answer you’d give here. But clay has also become a bit of a haven for shotmakers, giving them more time to pull off their stuff. I watch for a player like that in top form—Fabio Fognini, Stan Wawrinka, David Goffin, Ashleigh Barty, Pablo Cuevas, Richard Gasquet among them. The newest names I’ll be looking for—Bianca Andreescu, Lorenzo Musetti and Hugo Gaston.

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Peter Bodo: On the men’s side, the plot line is familiar: can anyone topple the King of Clay? The more compelling question to me, though, is how Naomi Osaka will respond to the challenge of clay. Barty’s No. 1 ranking was saved by the bell when No. 2 Osaka lost in Miami, and now the handicapping scales tilt toward Barty, the French Open champion of 2019 (she declined to defend her title in the rescheduled, fall event in 2020). 

Jon Levey:  Dominic Thiem has mostly been a non-factor in 2021. Being on clay should change that. He skipped Monte Carlo—still working on his “reset”—which isn’t a promising start. But if anyone can derail Nadal and his pursuit of the Grand Slam singles record—the overriding storyline of the clay season—a motivated and in-form Thiem may have the best shot.

Matt Fitzgerald: Djokovic has claimed 10 Masters 1000 titles on clay, beating Nadal in four of those finals—an unappreciated career stat. Monte Carlo is our first look at Novak since he tacked on major No. 18 in Melbourne, and I’m sure the world No. 1 used the past seven weeks away from the match court to emotionally prepare for his grand opportunity at rewriting history across Europe. Watching that play out = we’re the lucky ones.

Jordaan Sanford: I’ll have my eyes on Naomi Osaka. She has yet to win a clay court title and it will be exciting to watch her progress on the dirt and to see if she can jump over this hurdle.

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Cale Hammond: I am fascinated to see how Iga Swiatek performs on clay this year. Her combination of touch, movement, and heavy ball-striking led her to one of the most dominant Grand Slam performances in history. Throughout her professional career, ITF and Fed Cup included, she is an astonishing 62-11 on clay. Are we looking at the next Chris Evert? Or will the overwhelming pressure to defend a major championship affect her play? I can’t wait to see what kind of level she brings to the dirt this season.

Ashley NdebeleSara Sorribes Tormo. In a span of a month, she’s won her first tour-level title in Guadalajara, reached Monterrey semis and gave Bianca Andreescu a run for her money in the Miami Open quarterfinals. Her game is perfectly suited to clay, so wouldn’t be surprised if she picked up some hardware in the next coming weeks.

David Kane: I’ve been excited to see what Bianca Andreescu can do on clay for a full two years. Injuries and a near-apocalypse have conspired to postpone that experiment, but barring another disaster, this should be the first time we’ll get to see the Canadian at full strength through Madrid, Rome, and Roland Garros. Will her physical hard-court game translate to terre battue?

Van Sias: Despite his professed distaste for clay recently—and recent COVID-19 diagnosis—I'm really intrigued by what Daniil Medvedev can do on the dirt. He's only a couple of years removed from a semifinal run in Monte Carlo—where he beat Novak Djokovic and Stefanos Tsitsipas, among others—and a final-round finish in Barcelona, results that should give anyone confidence. If he approaches the weeks ahead with the right mind-set, he might be able to hold off Rafael Nadal from reclaiming that No. 2 spot.