Next week’s Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters kicks off a two-month fête on the European clay, and at Tennis TV we’re excited to deliver the most important events on the road to Roland Garros right to your favourite streaming devices.
With Roger Federer taking a well-deserved break from the ATP World Tour in the upcoming weeks, there are tremendous opportunities lying in wait for many of the top players. Who will grab the headlines and seize this year’s prestigious clay-court titles? The clay is a blank canvas right now, waiting for the players to lay down their brush strokes. Before the excitement begins, let’s take a look at the storylines we’ll be watching this spring.
Health comes first for Djokovic and Murray
Neither Andy Murray nor Novak Djokovic has had the start that they wanted to begin the 2017 season. Not even close, but the pair are still perched atop the ATP rankings, and each is hopeful that the clay will bring a change in fortune to their camps. Murray remains comfortably ahead of Djokovic for No.1 in the rankings but neither player is in the Top 10 in the Race to London standings, and to make matters worse, each is nursing an elbow injury as we switch from hard courts to clay.
Djokovic appears to be the healthier of the two. The Serb took to the court at Davis Cup last weekend, hitting ten aces and 26 winners in a straight-sets victory over Albert Ramos-Vinolas of Spain. Djokovic was pleased with the victory and appears confident that he will recapture his missing mojo on the clay this spring. ‘I’ve lost my best game in the last few months, it was hard for me to accept it after being on top for the last six years and today’s match shows that I can get back to winning ways’ Djokovic said on Friday in Belgrade.
His struggles are one part of the narrative, but we shouldn’t forget that Djokovic has established himself as the premier clay-courter in tennis over the last three seasons. Since the beginning of 2014, Djokovic has gone 46-5 with four Masters 1000 titles and a Roland Garros title on clay. He’s also defeated Rafael Nadal in four of his last five meetings with the Spaniard on the surface, while producing a 19-4 record against the Top 10 in that span.
Murray, meanwhile, has become a vastly improved player on clay over the last 24 months. He has won titles at Munich (2015), Madrid (2015) and Rome (2016), and reached his first Roland Garros final last season. But Murray’s elbow injury appears to be more serious than Djokovic’s and could end up delaying the start of his clay season. On Monday Murray returned to play a charity event in Zurich and said he was hopeful of competing next week in Monte Carlo, but emphasised the need for patience with his return.
Whether Murray returns at Monte-Carlo or later this spring, the World No.1’s top priority should be ensuring that he’s fit and not in danger of re-injuring himself.
Can the King of Clay turn back the clock?
It’s been a brilliant 2017 for Rafael Nadal, who reached his first major final since 2014 at this year’s Australian Open. Though Nadal has been unable to solve the riddle of Roger Federer in the season’s first three months, he has nonetheless built a great deal of momentum, going 19-5 with three Top 10 wins and two hard court finals to his name.
Now, if the Spaniard can take the next step and summon that savage clay-court form of year’s past, then he might have a real chance to do serious damage over the next two months. The Spaniard thinks he’s ready to do just that. ‘I think I am close to what I need to be,’ Nadal said after losing the Miami final to Federer a week ago. ‘I am at a very high level of tennis and I believe I am ready to win titles. … When I am playing that well, [being back] on clay always helps a little bit more for me.’
Del Potro: Rested and Ready
Looking for a dark horse this clay season? Look no further than the Tower of Tandil, Juan Martin del Potro. The Argentine has only played five clay-court matches since the beginning of 2014, but Del Potro is a former Roland Garros semi-finalist that knows his way around the clay. We think a lot of pundits are sleeping on Del Potro because he has a very pedestrian 6-4 record on the season, with just one semi-final to his name. But Del Potro has only lost to players ranked No.6 in the world or higher – in other words, he’s been the victim of difficult draws.
Despite the lack of eye-popping results, Del Potro’s tennis has been solid this season. He twice took Novak Djokovic to three sets, and he has struck his backhand with more authority as the season has progressed. We saw what kind of damage Del Potro could do last season when he heated up at the Rio Olympics (Silver medal) and the U.S. Open (quarter-final). If he can find his form on the clay this summer he could take the next big step in his comeback and make a push for the Top 20 by the conclusion of Roland Garros.
Thiem’s time coming?
Last year Dominic Thiem used the European clay-court swing as a springboard to the Top 10. He went 17-5 with a title in Nice, a final in Munich and his first career Grand Slam semi-final at Roland Garros. A year later the 23-year-old will seek to recreate the magic of 2016 on a surface that suits his physical, punishing game perfectly. Thiem is rapidly improving on all surfaces but on the red clay he is a force to be reckoned with because of his ability to generate vicious topspin while defending and returning from a more defensive court positioning.
The clay allows Thiem time to set up and whip his racquet head through the hitting zone with tremendous speed, and this enables the Austrian to dictate the terms of rallies and keep his opponents on the defensive.
Thiem has gone 50-15 on clay with five titles since the beginning of 2015, with wins over Nadal and Federer. Is the Austrian destined to be the game’s best clay-courter at some point in the future? Another season like his last and we’ll be saying yes.
Sock, Kyrgios, Dimitrov Gunning for London
A quick glance at the current ATP Race to London standings will tell you just how impressive Grigor Dimitrov (4th), Jack Sock (7th) and Nick Kyrgios (10th) have been in 2017. But to stay in the hunt for the prestigious year-end finals all three will have to put their best foot forward on the clay. Each has proven that they can be successful on the surface, but are they comfortable enough on clay to make good results at elite events like Madrid and Rome where there are big points on the line?
Dimitrov has a Masters semi-final (Rome 2014) on clay to his name, while Kyrgios reached his only Masters quarter-final on clay at Madrid last season. Sock is comfortable on clay but has never been to a quarter-final at a Masters event on that surface.
All three players have come a long way this season, but they’ll need to find a way to match up with elite talents on the clay or risk falling out of the Race to London by the summer.
Kontinen and Peers going strong
It’s been a fantastic season for Finland’s Henri Kontinen, who overtook Nicolas Mahut and became the 50th ATP player to claim the No.1 doubles ranking last Monday. Kontinen and Aussie John Peers have gone 25-6 in the last six months and they stand atop the Race to London leaderboard after winning this year’s Australian Open. Lukasz Kubot and Marcelo Melo are also going strong. The Brazilian-Polish pairing finished runner-up at Indian Wells and took the title in Miami to rise to No.2 in the Race to London standings.
They’ll both be in the running for the biggest clay titles this spring, but don’t count out the Bryan Brothers. The 38-year-old twins won Barcelona and Rome last year in addition to reaching the final at Roland Garros. The 16-time major and two-time Roland Garros champions have not won a Slam title since the 2014 U.S. Open. Expect them to be a team on a mission this spring as the road to Roland Garros heats up.
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