Having said goodbye to unforgiving hardcourts, players are now turning to the earthier red-brown clay as they ramp up their preparation for the year’s second major at the French Open.
The claycourt swing officially commenced on the green dirt at the WTA event in Charleston earlier in April, followed by some minor ATP events the next week. But with the Monte Carlo Masters now in full swing, this is the first time we’ll get to see many of the big guns begin to test the waters on European clay, the first of several prestigious tournaments in glamorous cities on the road to Roland Garros.
Rarely before has a claycourt season generated so much anticipation on the men’s side. Many years ago it was often the domain of obscure, unlikely winners from predominantly Spanish and Latin American countries, who briefly enjoyed their moment in the sun before quickly fading from the scene. That stopped with the advent of Rafael Nadal, who’s utter dirtball dominance instead making the claycourt swing one of the most predictable periods on the tennis calendar.
The Big Four
Yet with Nadal’s injury woes, Djokovic’s emergence his nemesis, and the ever-increasing claycourt proficiency of fast-court players Roger Federer and Andy Murray, the Spaniard is no longer a lock in to win the game’s biggest claycourt titles.
Nadal arrives in Monte Carlo bidding for an unprecedented eighth consecutive title, but without a tournament victory since last year’s French Open. Suffering shoulder and knee troubles in 2012, the latter forced his withdrawal from the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami and affected his traditional training block on clay. Yet until someone upends him in the Riviera, many believe the world No.2 will as always use another victory at the tournament to shake out the cobwebs and replenish his confidence ahead of the French Open.
The player most likely to thwart these plans is Djokovic, who stunned the tennis world last year with back-to-back straight set defeats of the Spaniard in the Madrid and Rome finals. He skipped Monte Carlo last year, but is playing in his adopted hometown in 2012 confident of continuing the form that has so far netted him titles at the Australian and Sony Ericsson Opens. The Serb last year missed a showdown with Nadal at Roland Garros when Federer upended Djokovic – and his 43-match winning streak – in the semifinals. A win over Nadal in Monte Carlo could give him that extra psychological boost needed to win at Roland Garros and complete his career Grand Slam.
Both men won their opening matches in Monte Carlo and barring a massive upset, a finals stoush looks likely. Federer is absent from the tournament, resting before he commences his claycourt campaign at the Madrid Masters. The Swiss traditionally performs well in the Spanish capital, the high altitude quickening the courts and better suiting his attacking game. It was here that he scored a win over Nadal in the 2009 final – just his second career win on clay over his rival – which no doubt boosted his confidence ahead of his first victory at Roland Garros just a few weeks later.
Federer has never defeated Nadal in Paris, considered the litmus test of a player’s claycourt credentials. Many believed his best chance was in last year’s final following his sublime performance over Djokovic in the semis, but despite the four-set loss, never before had Federer come so close to defeating the Spaniard at Roland Garros.
Also getting closer to a breakthrough is Andy Murray. The Scot, widely perceived as being weaker on clay than other surfaces, went a long way to changing that opinion with his performances on dirt in 2011. Final-four finishes in Monte Carlo and Rome were followed by a run to the semis in Paris, his career-best result at Roland Garros. Now working with Ivan Lendl, who is encouraging the world No.4 to be more assertive in his matches, Murray may now be beginning to adopt the aggressive mindset and point-ending forehand necessary for success on clay.
Women most likely
Although to a lesser extent, a dominant forehand is also a recipe for success on clay in the women’s game. Australian Sam Stosur, one of the game’s strongest dirtballers, used her heavy forehand to full effect during her spectacular run to the Roland Garros final in 2010.
Speaking from Charleston, where she kicked off her 2012 clay season with a semifinal finish, the world No.5 said the nature of surface suited her game well and amplified her strengths.
“Clay suits my kick serve and forehand, which I like to play with lots of spin. It also gives me time to get around my backhand and try to use my forehand to dominate the points,” she explained.
“I always look forward to starting on the clay and it is nice to start on the green clay. It maybe plays a touch faster than red clay but it is very nice and I believe great preparation for Europe. The clay court season is my favourite time of the year to play and something I set myself to be ready for.”
Stosur is currently in Stuttgart for Australia’s Fed Cup tie against Germany, and will remain there for the following week’s WTA Porsche Tennis Grand Prix, part of a build-up to Roland Garros that also includes stops in Madrid and Rome. It’s a route that most of the top women will follow, and looking at last year’s winners of the same events, it’s clear a trend exists – players who can hit through the court are the ones who taste success.
World No.2 Maria Sharapova and No.3 Petra Kvitova scooped the titles in Rome and Madrid respectively, both then enjoying solid runs at Roland Garros which ended at the hands of eventual champion Li Na, another power-packed player. The slowness of the clay gives slightly-less-than-nimble Sharapova and Kvitova extra time to position themselves for their shots, and with both over six feet tall, the high bounce sits up in their hitting zones.
Yet as important as power is, consistency is another. Claycourt tennis requires players to hit plenty of extra balls and focus more on constructing points, something which many believe suits the style of the game’s top counterpunchers, Caroline Wozniacki and Agnieszka Radwanska.
Wozniacki has seen better days on tour – her season has been defined so far by a rapid descent from top spot to No.6 in the rankings. Radwanska has gone the other way, shooting up to a career-high mark of No.4 after a fabulous start to the season which has reaped big titles in Dubai and Miami and a win-loss record of 26-4 (all losses coming to Victoria Azarenka). Yet despite the duo’s credentials, the fact remains that their success on clay has been comparatively limited. As Radwanska has discovered, a greater willingness to be aggressive and attempt to dictate play may pay dividends.
And what of world No.1 Azarenka? The Belorussian has enjoyed a scintillating start to 2012, her incredible winning streak of 26 matches – the best start to a season since Hingis went 37-0 in 1997 –finally snapped by Marion Bartoli in the Miami quarterfinals. Azarenka is a wise pick simply because of her game, a deft combination of both the power and consistency required for claycourt success. An excellent mover and who constructs points intelligently, Azarenka’s results on dirt in 2011 – Madrid final, Rome quarterfinal, and French Open fourth round – demonstrate a level of comfort on the surface, despite the differences between it and her beloved hardcourts.
Whatever the outcome of the upcoming tournaments, no doubt we’ll see some scintillating tennis as players joust for supremacy in excitingly open fields in both the men’s and women’s game. Will the eventual Roland Garros champion be Nadal again, or another member of the ATP Big Four? And will the women’s champion come from the current core of top WTA talent? Or will we perhaps see an unlikely new name inscribed in French Open folklore? Stay tuned.
Road to Roland Garros
World Team Cup, Dusseldorf
*ATP Masters/WTA Premier events listed in CAPS