On April 15th in Monte Carlo the European Tennis clay court season starts in earnest – further tournaments will follow in Barcelona, Bucharest, Munich, Estoril, Madrid, Rome, Dusseldorf and Nice where the goal for the top players is to be in prime form for the second grand slam of 2013, the French Open, Roland Garros, Paris which starts on May 27th. But who are the runners and riders to take the glory in Paris. Well for me there are five from the field:-
I’ll start with the undisputed king of clay Rafael Nadal. Well what a comeback that’s all I have to say. After his injury lay off the Mallorcan has played in four tournaments, won three of them and was runner up in the other. Not too shabby hey for a player who some thought his days at the top of mens tennis were over. His victory at Indian Wells on hard courts came as somewhat of a surprise given the protracted and carefully managed nature of his recovery, though a cautious Nadal is not taking anything for granted. He knows there is a long way to go if he is to reach his previous high standards without breaking down, the BNP Paribas victory was a bonus and he duly skipped the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami (which has seen him drop to 5th in the world rankings) though this has allowed him more preparation time for the hard slog of the European Clay Court season so that he is primed in his attempt to win an 8th French Open title.
Next the world number one, Novak Djokovic. The current Australian Open Champion and a man who has contested eight out of the last ten grand slam finals, winning five of them. He was at his imperious best in beating Andy Murray in Melbourne but since then his form has dipped, and by dipped I mean not actually getting to the final of his last two tournaments!!!!!!! His standards have been that high for the last couple of years. Rumours of personal issues have been seen as the reason for this dip, though this is not the first time this has been said, so I expect after a recharge of his batteries, Djoko will be ready for the physical and mental challenges that need to be overcome to be a success on the clay.
Roger Federer arguably the greatest tennis player ever. But is he on the slide??????? 2013 has not been a vintage year, but the powers of recovery of this man are probably only second to Nadal. He has played in four tournaments and he has not even got to a final yet, not like the old Fed but as mentioned it would be foolish to write him off. Twice before he has come back off the ropes and seemingly poor form to win grand slams, firstly in the 2009 French Open, staring down the barrel two sets down to Tommy Haas in the 4th round – he came back to win in five and then claim his first title at Roland Garros and complete a career grand slam. And Wimbledon last year, a set down under immense pressure from Andy Murray, he hit some amazing shots won the second set after being under the cosh for most of it and won the match in four. It will be harder this time, he is now 31 and has two young children, which is the likely reason he is now on a sabbatical with a scheduled return to defend his Madrid Open title in mid-May. Whether on the wain or not, The Fedmeister will be there or thereabouts come Paris.
Now my next nominee may surprise you, but anyone who knows about clay court tennis will fully understand why David Ferrer is a live contender for the French Open. He may be 31, but he is one of the fittest players on the tour and has had a bit of a renaissance in the last couple of years, regularly making it to the latter stages of the grand slams. His best surface is clay, but being a Spaniard he does play second fiddle to Rafa Nadal a lot of the time. 2013 has seen a continuation of his good form; he retained his Auckland Open title and reached the semi-finals of the Australian Open, losing to the eventual champion, Novak Djokovic. He took over as the Spanish number one, due to Nadal’s absence from the tour, moving up one to 4th in the world. He reached the Mexican Open final, where he lost to a returning Nadal and therein lies his issue, his nemesis Nadal, a man who he has played 23 times and won only five and more importantly has only ever beaten him on clay once and that was their first match against each other in 2004!!!!!!! Ferrer’s last tournament saw him reach the Sony Ericsson Open Final in Miami, where he lost a dramatic match against Andy Murray, only a failed challenge on a match point deprived him of the title, (though he again leapfrogged Nadal in the rankings, moving up to fourth and his spanish compatriot dropping to fifth) He will be a strong challenger on the red clay and if he avoids Nadal, a first grand slam title could be his.
My final one from the field is the newest member of the ‘Grand Slam Club’ Andy Murray. After his break through at Flushing Meadow in September the Scot has gone from strength to strength with his new found confidence, especially as he is guided by the brilliant Ivan Lendl now. He has continued this into 2013. Four tournaments entered, two victories (Brisbane and Miami), a quarter final defeat in Indian Wells and his only real disappointment of the year being a defeat to Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open Final. More ups than downs there me thinks, especially as after his most recent win in the Sony Ericsson Open he has moved up to number two in the world rankings, which is important especially as he could be kept apart from the most of the other four I have mentioned in this article in ensuing draws. Clay is not Murray’s favoured surface, but he has improved over the years and lets not forget he honed his initial tennis skills in Spain on the red stuff when he was 15. His French Open record is much improved with two quarter finals and one semi final apperance in the last three years. With a good clay court season, which will mean an increased confidence on the surface, Murray could be the first British winner of the French Open since Sue Barker in 1976 and first male British winner since 1935!!!!!!!
So who do you think is going to be the King of the Red Clay??????? Let me know your thoughts. Agreed there are others in the draw but I feel the winner will come from the five above but understandable if maybes the likes of Berdych, Del Potro or the home favourites Tsonga and Gasquet step up. What do you reckon??????? – all comments gratefully received.