The highlight of the men’s tennis season to date is Stanislas Wawrinka winning the Australian Open but the build up to the French Open in May has begun and that means step forward Mister Rafael Nadal. The King of Clay has won the French Open eight times and is the favourite to add to his tally when the European clay court season culminates at Roland Garros in Paris.
No other player has won the same Grand Slam eight times and Nadal is the best clay court player in the history of the sport. Bjorn Borg won the French Open six times and in three of those winning years he also won the Wimbledon title. The difference in playing conditions on clay and grass makes that double tough, especially with now only two weeks between each tournament.
Nadal has now won 12 Grand Slams and with another two French Opens at least possible and his form on hard courts he could surpass Roger Federer’s total of 17. That player’s Grand Slam title winning days may be behind him and Wimbledon provides him with the best chance of winning another. However, Federer will probably have to beat any two of Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray to win again at a major.
Djokovic, Murray and Nadal are all aged 26 or 27 so have at least three more years competing at the highest level. Wawrinka may prove to be a one hit wonder which means the usual suspects will be playing in the Grand Slam finals for the foreseeable future. It will be interesting to see how Murray fares at Wimbledon this year and he looks destined to win that title at least once again before the end of his career.
Murray is now half way towards a career Grand Slam and has the game to win the Australian Open. He has lost in the final of those championships three times but is proven on the surface at the major championship level. However, winning the French Open will be a tough ask, particularly in the Nadal era and with a game not ideally suited to clay.
Djokovic just needs the French Open to complete the set and the same applies to the Serb. He lost in an epic semi final to Nadal in last year French Open. He looked favourite to win the match until a crucial point which was won but then forfeited when he ran into the net while the point was still alive.
Djokovic is at his best on hard courts but is good enough to adapt to grass. The season on that surface is so brief that players have little opportunity to adjust to the conditions and without Wimbledon nobody would consider practising on grass. Nadal is unlikely to not focus us on his beloved French Open to practice more on grass. He has won the Wimbledon title twice but his condition and penchant for clay means a third title looks elusive.
Federer has won the Wimbledon title seven times and must be considered one of the best players ever on grass. Pete Sampras had the serve and power to dominate his opponents at Wimbledon and a match with both players at their best on grass would be hard to call. Borg and John McEnroe could also claim to be the best grass court player ever and Rod Laver from an earlier era was another master of the surface.
Before the high summer Wimbledon fortnight the French Open takes place in the late spring. Clay is a slow surface which means the ball bounces high enough for players to retrieve shots and extend the rallies. Nadal is one of the fittest players on tour and his stamina means he can play at a high level in five set matches over up to four hours.
We are now embarking on the Brazilian clay court swing. Tournaments are also being played indoors and outdoors on hardcourts in Europe and North America. There are two hardcourt Masters 1000 events in March and the European clay court season begins in the second week of April after the next round of the Davis Cup.
There are 11 clay court tournaments in April and May in Europe before the pinnacle of the clay season in France. That includes Masters 1000 events in Monte Carlo, Madrid and Rome. The world’s best players decamp in Europe and for some this part of the year is the highlight if the season. Due to the nature of the surface clay lends itself to prolonged rallies and is the most entertaining form of the game to watch.
The Masters events are just one level below the majors in terms of ranking points and prize money. The fields are the strongest of the year in regular tournaments and they are spread over all surfaces. The minor regular tournaments have draws of just 32 player but there are generally 56 in the draw for the 1000 events with the top eight seeds getting byes to the second round.
Nadal won two of the three Masters events played on clay last season and Djokovic won the other. Nadal won six clay court events in 2013 bringing his carer tally on the surface to 42. He has won the Monte Carlo Masters, Rome Masters and Barcelona Open on the surface seven times or more. He holds the record for the most consecutive titles at any singles tournament, in Monte Carlo.
Nadal can win the French Open for the ninth time this year. He can also win again at the top level on hardcourts and though another Wimbledon title looks beyond him he will end his career with an unsurpassable record on the red dirt and especially the clay of Paris.