Clay Q&A : ATP
As was the case last year, Victor Estrella Burgos opened the men’s clay season by winning the Quito title (the women’s tour will kick off next week). What can we expect from the 22 tournaments that will make up the clay swing this year, culminating at Roland-Garros at the end of May and early June? Let’s see what our journalists have to say on these matters…
Who can stop Novak Djokovic?
The Serb is clear of the pack at No.1 in the world and is very much the man to beat on clay. Who could possibly knock him off his perch?
Myrtille Rambion: Honestly, is there anyone out there who can stop Novak Djokovic from winning it all this season? Unless… Unless Stan Wawrinka, with his strength and his natural game for clay, does what he did last spring. Or then again, there’s Milos Raonic. The Canadian has actually come out and said that he prefers clay to certain quicker surfaces, including grass… When you look at the progress he has made in terms of his movement and the way he has perfected his cross-court game, it would not be that much of a surprise to see him flourish on the red dirt. Whatever happens, he looks like one of the players who can actually shake things up against Nole the untouchable.
Amandine Reymond: Does Novak Djokovic ever have nightmares? If he does, I bet they feature Stan Wawrinka. Last year, the Swiss was the one who deprived him of the sole remaining Grand Slam he has yet to bag. And this year, the reigning French Open champion is definitely the greatest threat to Djokovic, whom he beat on both occasions en route to his two Grand Slam titles to date. Rafael Nadal could also be a threat to the Djoker. The Majorcan may not have beaten him since the 2014 Roland-Garros final, but he always rises to the occasion on his favourite surface, where he still leads the head-to-head with the world No.1 14-6. And the thought of a tenth title in Paris will no doubt give him all the motivation he needs.
Guillaume Willecoq: It’s tough to come up with a different answer to this particular question. Why Stan Wawrinka and Rafael Nadal? Because both of them have already won Roland-Garros (the latter more than the former)… and because both of them have already beaten Djokovic there, in the final to boot. If they can do it once, then they are obviously in the best position to do it again. Because other than an injury or a Robin Soderling-esque shock, Djokovic has built up such a level of skill and confidence that he is only likely to flinch against a player that he knows deep down can cause him problems.
Which newcomer(s) might come along and shake things up?
We may not be expecting them to shine just now, but who are the players who could come good on the biggest of stages?
Myrtille Rambion: The “Big Four” still seem to be ahead of the pack, but Nick Kyrgios might well be the one to finally show the rest how to challenge them. If he can get a little bit stronger, both on court and in his head, the Australian can be very good very soon, including on clay, because he knows that today’s top players need to be good on every surface.
Amandine Reymond: After breaking onto the scene in 2014, Roberto Bautista Agut followed up in 2015 by establishing himself in the Top 30. He has got off to a flyer this year, winning in Auckland (outdoor hard) and Sofia (indoor hard), so it will be interesting to see how he does on clay, which is the favourite surface of the Spaniards and one on which he also made the semi-finals of an ATP Masters 1000 (in Madrid, in 2014). He is a versatile, all-round player, and an admirer of Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer. Maybe now is the time for him to follow in their footsteps and step up to the next level.
Guillaume Willecoq: With a strong, heavy ball à la Wawrinka, Dominic Thiem has what it takes to mix it with the best of them on clay, a surface on which he won his maiden ATP titles in 2015. He is just 22 and the youngest member of the top 20 – now it is up to him to confirm the promise he has shown when it comes to big tournaments. The same applies to Jack Sock, a rare breed of American to actually feel at home on the red dirt, and now more than ever to Grigor Dimitrov, who needs to get back on track after a disappointing 2015.
What about Rafa?
Regardless of the ATP rankings, his nine French Open titles make Rafael Nadal the undisputed king of clay. What can we expect from him on his favourite surface?
Myrtille Rambion: He seemed to be making progress at the end of last season, and it may be that he thought he had seen the light at the end of the tunnel. Since then though, the Australian Open has brought a whole new wave of uncertainty. The main priority for the Matador from Manacor however is a tenth Roland-Garros title – he wants the decima more than anything. To do that, he needs to build up his confidence on clay, and what better surface for him on which to do it? Last year he won two titles on the red stuff, and there is no reason why he should not manage to do the same in 2016. And then? If he gets a little help from the draw, anything could happen, and he could get that mythic tenth title.
Amandine Reymond: After a complicated 2015 season, Nadal had to go into rebuilding mode, and while he looked to have got over the hump in recent months, his defeat in the first round of the Australian Open to Fernando Verdasco brought all the doubts back to the surface. To try to get back to something like his best as quickly as possible, he added Buenos Aires to his calendar… a clay tournament, obviously. It’s the surface on which he has built his legend, and he will be looking to get back on track to achieve his main aim, namely a tenth French Open title. Let us not forget that he has not won a Grand Slam in almost two years, so the tournaments in the build-up to Roland-Garros will be crucial for him to regain the confidence that he is currently lacking.
Guillaume Willecoq: The way he finished the 2015 season would seem to imply that Nadal could become Djokovic’s number one challenger by the time Roland-Garros comes around. And then he fell at the first hurdle in Melbourne. No, Rafa is not yet back to his best. Yes, he seems to be lacking that certain je ne sais quoi that used to set him apart. When every point is a big point, when the stakes are at their highest – i.e. at the Grand Slams – Rafa is no longer the fearsome predator he once was. But against mere mortals (i.e. everyone but Djokovic) and on clay more than anywhere else, the key to his success is not the strength of his opponent, but his mental state of mind. And there is absolutely no reason for him not to be on top form in his head when he gets back to his favourite surface. Will that be enough to get his nose in front of Djokovic once again? The ATP Masters 1000s in the run-up to Roland-Garros might well be worth their weight in gold. Novak had better not drop a single match to Rafa, otherwise the man from Majorca will be brimming with confidence by the time the French comes around.
Which French players should we be talking about?
Roland-Garros is obviously the main date on the calendar for the French players – which ones are poised to have a good clay season and peak at the right time for Roland-Garros?
Myrtille Rambion: Richard Gasquet is back with a vengeance. He’s playing well despite the fact that he’s got some groin problems – well enough to win in Montpellier. And on clay more than any other surface, Richie can give his talent free rein. When his one-handed backhand is flowing, when his kick service takes his opponent out wide and when his drop-shots make it difficult for them to read his game, the man from Beziers in the south of France is one of the best in the world on this surface. I can’t wait to see him have a good clay swing.
Amandine Reymond: Having made the semis at Roland-Garros on two occasions in the past (2013 and 2015), Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is the man on whom most French hopes rest when it comes to the Paris Slam every year. And this time around he is playing the golden swing for the first time. The fact that he has added Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro to his calendar means that the French No.1 is not only getting to grips with clay before the first round of the Davis Cup against Canada, but it may be that he finally manages to win his maiden title on the surface, meaning he will be full of confidence by the time the European swing starts.
Guillaume Willecoq: It may not seem very rational, and Tsonga would be a far more obvious pick, but Gaël Monfils has never been a player you’d associate with the word “rational”, so I’m going to follow suit. It’s a risk, but I am convinced that Gaël could (should?) do something big at Roland-Garros before the end of his career.
Who will rack up the most titles on clay?
Will it be a spring sprinter or a long-distance accumulator? Who will win the most trophies on the red dirt between February and July 2016?
Myrtille Rambion: Rafael Nadal, for heaven’s sake! 2016 will be the year that he makes it back to the big time. And the route back will be paved with clay.
Amandine Reymond: With Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro on his itinerary in February, Rafael Nadal can already pull away from the pack with two titles before the European season starts, but Novak Djokovic is still the favourite for the title of best clay player of the season. The world No.1 has an insatiable appetite for trophies, winning 13 of the last 18 tournaments he has played in. His record on clay is even better – he only lost once in all of 2015, and that was the French Open final. Prior to that, he won in Monte Carlo and Rome, and even allowed himself the luxury of pulling out of Madrid. He is set to play all four main clay tournaments this year, so he will no doubt be aiming to win three out of four… if not all four.
Guillaume Willecoq: In 2015, the titles were shared out to such an extent in the early going that Dominic Thiem ended up being the king of clay with wins in Nice, Umag and Gstaad, ahead of Djokovic, Murray and Nadal. I can see something like this happening again in 2016, meaning that an adept of the golden swing might end up being the leader, or maybe one of those who stay on clay post-Roland-Garros: Dominic Thiem (yes, again!), Thomaz Bellucci... or crazy old Fabio Fognini if he manages to keep his mind focused.