By David Zakhodin
With the Monte Carlo Rolex Masters in the rearview mirror, the ATP tour has now begun the long and arduous grind that is the European clay court season. Featuring two more back to back Masters events and a prestigious 500 level tournament in Barcelona as a means of tune up for the year’s second Grand Slam, competition on the red clay presents a very unique challenge for the four elites who have dominated the sport for the last decade. The European red clay has been a source of both immense joy and heart-shattering pain for each one of The Big Four, and this upcoming season’s impact on their careers seems rather unpredictable. Now that the hard court season is on hold until July, the clay courts will serve as a determinant for which of The Big Four finishes the first half of the season on a high and moves into Wimbledon and the Rio Olympics with the most confidence. Listed below in order of lowest to highest hopes are the latest stories surrounding each of the Big Four going into Madrid, Rome, and Roland Garros.
Andy Murray: Mutua Madrid Masters champion
Andy Murray came into the clay court season on what could be considered a considerable slide. While we have become used to seeing Andy have a post-Australian Open final hangover, he usually finds himself right in the mix of things by the time the Miami Open, his second home, appears on the schedule. However, Andy bowed out early at both hard court Masters events and came into Monte Carlo with little confidence and few matches under his belt. Despite not having his best during an opening round match against Benoit Paire, Andy recovered and made a deep run all the way to the semifinals where he even won the first set off a surging Rafa. Next for the Scottishman lies the defense of the Madrid title which he won so convincingly last year against his Spanish buddy. While that result was arguably the most pleasantly surprising of his clay court career, it is going to be very difficult for Andy to replicate the same success because of his recently inconsistent play. And even though Andy has proven in recent years that he can play more disciplined tennis on the dirt, it’s safe to say that he cannot break his ceiling of getting to the semifinals of Roland Garros. While pushing Novak to five sets in last year’s epic battle was a positive sign, I don’t see Andy as a contender to host the Coupe des Mousquetaires this June.
Roger Federer: French Open champion and two-time Mutua Madrid Masters champion
After an extremely successful 2015 season and a strong start to this year down under, Roger fell off the radar in large part due to a freak knee injury that forced him out for the remainder of the hard court season. While it may appear that a long period of rest and rehabilitation was a blessing in disguise for the 34-year-old Federer, the knee injury actually disrupted Roger’s master plan for 2016. His original schedule, one that originally had many fans startled, included only one clay court tournament: Roland Garros. By way of being above a certain age and achieving a certain number of career match wins, Roger was eligible to skip all three clay court Masters series events without penalty from the ATP Tour. Hence, the plan was to limit the physical strain and effort dedicated to the clay in order to play two tune-up grass court events (Halle and Stuttgart) prior to Wimbledon and to begin gearing up for the summer hard courts featuring the Rio Olympics. Following the injury, Roger adjusted his schedule to fit in Monte Carlo and showed up in shaky match form. His first two victories featured bouts of shanks and unforced errors, and in the quarterfinals he was unable to get away with making a multitude of errors on big points against Jo-Wilfred Tsonga. Looking ahead, I wouldn’t rule out Roger finding a way to make a deep run in Paris because he’s come up with the goods before when we least expected it. However, this clay court season appears to be nothing but a building block for finding the level necessary to make a big run at SW19 and Rio.
Rafael Nadal: Nine-time French Open champion, nine-time Monte Carlo Rolex Masters champion, three-time Mutua Madrid Masters champion, seven-time Italian Open champion
It is not often that the greatest player in the history of the surface is doubted coming into two and a half straight months of play on the red clay, but such was the case with Rafa. He didn’t gain any confidence from his poor play in Sao Paolo and Buenos Aires during the short clay court circuit in February, and the hard court season in between then and now was defined by a thrashing at the hands of Novak in Indian Wells and a retirement in Miami. In fact, this was perhaps the first clay court season where Rafa was not a favorite or co-favorite to win any of the three Masters series events or Roland Garros. For years the Mallorcan has relied on his phenomenal retrieval skills far behind the baseline to bait opponents into attacking at inopportune moments. Additionally, what truly made him the King of Clay was his ability to dictate off both wings with shots so heavy that only one player (Novak) had been able to defend and hold the baseline. However, the recently missing ingredient in Rafa’s recipe to so many titles is the depth of his shots. As mentioned previously, Novak used to be the only player with the capability of pushing Rafa around the court on clay, but now any player who commits to being aggressive and staying on the baseline can force Rafa into trouble. And now that I’ve set up Rafa to fail miserably this clay court season, I will acknowledge that he just won Monte Carlo in extremely impressive fashion. Not only was he able to dictate play with depth from the forehand side, but he was resilient and able to problem-solve in multiple matches after losing sets (something he hadn’t done in earlier events this season). Therefore, despite all of his recent struggles and bouts of looking lost on the clay, Rafa seems to have regained some confidence by winning his first title in ten months and cannot be counted out when Roland Garros comes around. After all, if there is anyone who knows how to win there and rebound after a disappointing loss, it’s Rafael Nadal.
Novak Djokovic: Two-time Monte Carlo Rolex Masters champion, Mutua Madrid Masters champion, four-time Italian Open champion
Just as STARZ produced a dramatic TV show in Da Vinci’s Demons, the subject of this polarizing exposition can easily be called Djokovic’s Demons. At the end of the day, the only way to judge Novak’s clay court season is to see if he can finally vanquish his past failures at Roland Garros and hoist the Coupe des Mousquetaires. Perhaps losing to young Jiri Vesely in his opening match at Monte Carlo wasn’t the worst thing for Novak because the common theme of his recent losses at Roland Garros has been mental fatigue. Whether it be attempting to end points too early during last year’s final against Stan Wawrinka or being unable to consolidate breaks in previous finals against Rafa, Novak has looked worn out by the time the second week of Roland Garros came around. So maybe getting another week off was a good way for him to refresh and take his mind off the race for more Masters crowns. The bottom line is that Novak’s 2016 season is not going to be defined by how many Masters series events he wins or by his gap atop the world rankings. Instead, the season will be defined by how Novak responds at two tournaments where he has faced adversity: Roland Garros and the Olympics. If he can find a way to enter the deep rounds of these events in the right state of mind, then he will win and officially become a candidate for the GOAT. Just as Roger is looking ahead to Rio by treating the clay court season as a building block, Novak needs to set himself up for the tough summer schedule (featuring his Wimbledon title defense) by finally getting over the hump and finding a way to win the last point at Roland Garros.
Having dissected the status of The Big Four heading into the clay court season, it’s clear that this surface will challenge both the physical and mental resolve of each player. And just because these players have dictated terms in tennis for the past decade, it does not mean that there cannot be outsiders who utilize the unpredictability of the clay court season to their advantage. We cannot forget how Stan Wawrinka shocked the tennis world last year with his brilliant play to capture the Roland Garros title. This result shows us that the pure attrition that comes with the European red clay can knock down any of The Big Four and simultaneously elevate any contender willing to seize a new opportunity. Today, we sometimes wonder not which member of The Big Four will come out on top, but whether or not a member of The Big Four will triumph at all. Watch the grinding tennis on the terre battue these next several weeks to find the answer.