Clay season questions on Road to Roland Garros 2022

 - Alex Sharp

The excitement is starting to build with Roland-Garros 2022 just a month away on the calendar.

Rafael Nadal & Iga Swiatek / Roland-Garros©Amelie Laurin / FFT

It’s time for the players to get dusting off their shoes, to nail the unique movement and sliding required. It’s the clay court season.

The transition from the hard courts on the ‘Sunshine Swing’ has already begun with clay tournaments springing up Stateside and in Europe.

With so many story lines to follow, we’ve picked out some of the key questions on the Road to Roland-Garros.

Is Iga Swiatek unstoppable?

Technically no, but wow the Pole is playing dreamland tennis. 17 successive match victories, including the rare Indian Wells-Miami Open double, have propelled the 20-year-old to the world No.1 ranking.

In fine fettle, striking fearlessly, Iga Swiatek is going to take some stopping.

Add on top of her current form, the Pole relishes the return to clay and it’s understandable why as the Roland-Garros 2020 and Rome 2021 champion.

“Clay court, even though I'm not going to win all the tournaments or something, I still feel the most comfortable there,” stated Swiatek. “But no matter the results, it's all fun for me.”

The hype and scrutiny as the No.1 player may become a factor, but Swiatek has spoken about being the “same Iga.” Headstrong Swiatek isn’t going to have her head turned.

“I feel confident. Last time I played on clay was a year ago, I'm going to see how I'm going to play there.

“I always have that extra motivation before Roland Garros, so I'm pretty sure it's going to happen also this year, and I'm just gonna be working hard. But the results we are going to see. I can't promise anything.”

In current form it’s another build-up title and a silverware showdown on Court Philippe Chatrier.

Iga Swiatek, Roland-Garros 2020, finale, trophée, vestiaire

Who can halt the Swiatek show?

However, Swiatek is fully aware a slight dip or a slow transition to the clay will present an opportunity for a legion of players.

The Top 10 is bursting with major players and defending champion Barbora Krejcikova will be key contender. World No.3 Paula Badosa continues to chalk up impressive results and has the tools to build on a quarter-final showing in Paris last summer.

Maria Sakkari suffered heartache, relinquishing match point against Krejcikova in the final four last June. The 26-year-old’s supreme athleticism and ability to hang tough could become integral to a deep run.

Coco Gauff and Ons Jabeur are smooth operators on the terre battue, as are former champions Garbiñe Muguruza and Jelena Ostapenko. In the groove and firing on all cylinders, they’d trouble anyone.

Simona Halep, the RG18 winner, is an intriguing prospect having enlisted Serena Williams’ coach Patrick Mouratoglou as part of a “new chapter.” Swiatek and Halep have split Roland-Garros duels at one each, we’d all welcome a third instalment.

Alcaraz even stronger on clay?

The third youngest Masters 1000 champion ever, Carlos Alcaraz was a human highlight reel at the Miami Open.

Now, the talk has turned to the teenage sensation, already up to world No.11, soaring to a deep run at Roland-Garros. Surely, he couldn’t win the title?

For now it’s important to enjoy a youngster blazing past already lofty expectations with such freedom and joy on court.

His coach and former world No.1 Juan Carlos Ferrero insists his charge will remain grounded after such standout success and that his versatile game can thrive on all surfaces.

We are not sure,” said Ferrero with a smirk, referring to Alcaraz’s best surface.

“His kind of game is to go forward many times, to go to the net and to play aggressive all the time, I was completely sure that his game could adapt to these kind of courts and even for grass.

“I think that when he's 100% trained, maybe he can give a little bit more on clay. But let's keep the door open that maybe he's going to be better on hard courts in the future.”

There you have it, but remember last summer the Spaniard rattled through qualifying to reach the third round in Paris. A second week ticket is surely within his grasp 12 months on.

Can Nadal recapture his crown?

As a 13-time Roland-Garros champion, of course he can.

Unfortunately, the 35-year-old is in a race to regain fitness and match sharpness ahead of another title tilt in Paris.

Rafael Nadal enjoyed a personal best start to a season, posting 20-0, which yielded three titles including the Australian Open, before being halted by Taylor Fritz in the Indian Wells final.

At the end of March, the world No.4 announced he suffered a rib stress fracture, severely derailing his preparations for Roland-Garros.

“I am devastated and sad because after such a good start to the season I have had,” Nadal tweeted in Spanish.

“Now is a very important time of the year for me. I have always had that spirit of fighting and overcoming and what I will do is be patient and work hard after my recovery.”

Fingers crossed Nadal can bounce back in time once again.

Will Djokovic finally launch his season?

Reigning champion Novak Djokovic has been restricted to only three matches so far this campaign.

The world No.1’s last competitive outing was a straight sets defeat by Jiri Vesely in the Dubai quarter-finals. There was some rust then and he’ll need some time to recapture his lethal top-drawer tennis.

On the flip side the Serbian will be feeling refreshed and reinvigorated to kick-start his season at the Monte Carlo Masters next week.

Remember to never doubt Novak, he’ll be eager to chase down a record-equalling 21st Grand Slam alongside Nadal.

Names to keep tabs on

On the women’s side, along with players mentioned above, Aryna Sabalenka must be in the conversation.

The world No.5 was embroiled in two pulsating three-set clashes with Ash Barty last summer to demonstrate clay court credentials. Barty taking the Stuttgart honours, before Sabalenka gained revenge in the Madrid final.

Outside of the Nadal-Djokovic duopoly, Stefanos Tsitsipas has to be considered the next in line. The Greek currently holds the Monte Carlo crown and fell agonisingly short in the RG2021 final from two sets up facing an inspired Djokovic.

Alexander Zverev has previous form on clay, taking the Madrid trophy last season and Miami Open finalist Casper Ruud is handy on the terre battue. Andrey Rublev has also scooped up clay court trophies and could rise through the gears to do some damage.

Stefanos Tsitsipas, Alexander Zverev, Roland-Garros 2021, semi-final©️ Nicolas Gouhier/FFT