The 2016 clay season in review
The 37 tournaments (22 men’s and 15 women’s) making up the 2016 clay campaign are at an end, and the red dirt season at the top level is over now until 2017. At the beginning of the year, we took the liberty of making a few predictions (click here for the men’s and here for the women’s). Now is the time to analyse exactly how things panned out.
Who can stop Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams?
The Serb and the American are clear of the pack at No.1 in the world and are very much the champions to beat on clay. Who could possibly knock them off the perch?
For something to be classed as an exploit, it needs to be a rare feat, and this was proved by the fact that no-one managed to emulate the 2015 vintage Stan Wawrinka and somehow stop Novak Djokovic in his tracks at Roland-Garros. But while the Serb finally completed his collection of Grand Slams at the Porte d’Auteuil – which had been his avowed intention for a while now – he was forced to share the spoils more than he would have liked in the other tournaments, and certainly more than he did in 2015. Indeed, the clay-court ATP Masters 1000 in Monte-Carlo and Rome went the way of Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray. The latter went on to make the final of the French Open, and very much earned the mantle of No.2 as far as the clay season was concerned, as well as joining an elite group of players who have reached the final of all four Grand Slam tournaments.
Serena Williams, on the other hand, came up just short in the final at Roland-Garros, beaten by Garbine Muguruza who inked her place among the top players on the WTA circuit with her maiden Slam title.
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?
As well as reaching his first semi-final at Roland-Garros – and indeed his first in any Grand Slam – Dominic Thiem bagged titles in Buenos Aires and Nice, recording wins over such heavyweights as Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and David Ferrer along the way. The Austrian totally lived up to the "rising star" billing which we gave him and has stepped up to a higher level in 2016. Having crept into the top 20 after the Australian Open, he was as high as No.7 in the world after the French Open, with plenty more to come, no doubt.
Over on the WTA side, the big story on clay was the progress of Kiki Bertens. The Dutchwoman, who was previously only known for her Fed Cup performances, was another to take her tennis up a notch, winning 12 matches in a row from the Nuremberg qualifiers through to the Roland-Garros semi-finals. The run saw her take down big names of the ilk of Angelique Kerber, Roberta Vinci, Timea Bacsinszky and Madison Keys, and it took Serena Williams to deprive her of a Roland-Garros final (and even then Bertens had a set point in the opener). May was certainly a stand-out month for her, but she finished 2016 with a highly impressive 23 wins and just five defeats on clay.
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?
There are two assessments possible – one which takes his overall clay season into account, the other focusing purely on Roland-Garros. Gael Monfils was sixth in the ATP Race to London when the Paris major began, having impressed all the way through to the final in Monte-Carlo, and was poised for big things at his home Slam. Then along came a virus, and Monfils was forced to withdraw. Richard Gasquet took up the cudgels, and reached his first ever quarter-final at the French.
It was a similar tale on the women’s side. Caroline Garcia was the highest-profile Frenchwoman in the lead-up to Roland-Garros, securing the title in Strasbourg, but she went out in Paris a round earlier than the likes of Alizé Cornet, Pauline Parmentier and Kristina Mladenovic, the latter providing a stiff test for Serena in the third round. "Kiki" and "Caro" nevertheless formed a wonderful doubles partnership, taking home the silverware in Charleston, Stuttgart, Madrid and of course, Roland-Garros.
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?
Perhaps the main lesson to be learned from the 2016 clay season is how difficult it is to go on a winning run. Nobody managed to win more than two tournaments in total on the red dirt – on the men’s side, those who bagged a double were Djokovic (Madrid, Roland-Garros), Nadal (Monte-Carlo, Barcelona), Thiem (Buenos Aires, Nice) and Pablo Cuevas (Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo), while on the women’s, only Simona Halep won two titles (the 2014 Roland-Garros finalist winning in Madrid and Bucharest).
Wawrinka: The Stan behind the man
Murray finds feet on clay
Francesca Schiavone became the oldest woman to win a WTA clay tournament
Pablo Cuevas loves Brazil
Kuerten: "Brazil is full of ideas, but..."
The 2015 clay-court season by the numbers
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?
Of course, there are plenty of "what if", with the main one surrounding what would have happened at the business end of Roland-Garros 2016 if Nadal had not hurt his wrist... The Majorcan seemed to be back to his best with a Monte-Carlo - Barcelona double reminiscent of his heyday. Perhaps he would have been the one to stop Djokovic, and in the process, underline his legendary status by winning a tenth Roland-Garros title. Alas, Rafa’s 2016 clay season was very much a microcosm of his career – unstoppable when he is fit, but with injuries seemingly lurking around the corner at every step…