Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 16 September 2019

Same old story for Rafa Nadal and welcome back, Roger Federer: Claycourt swing talking points

As the ATP Tour makes its way to Europe for the claycourt swing – starting with the Monte Carlo Masters on Monday and culminating at the French Open next month – here are some key talking points to consider

Rafael Nadal is the greatest claycourt player ever but enters this year's swing with more injury problems. Reuters
Rafael Nadal is the greatest claycourt player ever but enters this year's swing with more injury problems. Reuters

Same old story for Nadal

This time last year, Rafael Nadal entered the claycourt swing having not played since retiring injured from his Australian Open quarter-final against Marin Cilic three months prior. There were genuine concerns that the greatest claycourt player in history might find his stranglehold on this stretch of the season loosened by his lengthy absence and a host of on-form challengers.

Instead, Nadal lost one match, winning the Monte Carlo and Rome Masters and the Barcelona Open, before clinching a near-inevitable 11th French Open title.

Now 12 months on, injury has once again disrupted Nadal’s campaign, and the world No 2 heads to Monte Carlo having missed the Miami Open following a withdrawal from Indian Wells ahead of his semi-final with Roger Federer.

The question is: can Nadal continue to peak on the clay despite the injuries that, surely one day, will take their toll?

In past, injury-ravaged seasons, the gulf in class between Nadal and his rivals meant that even with minor preparation and while playing not at full strength, he could be practically guaranteed of a trophy-haul this time of year.

But Nadal, 32, is another year older, his creaking body another year creakier, plus he has to contend with a rejuvenated Novak Djokovic – who despite enduring a minor slump, is still clear at the top of the rankings and claimed the year’s first grand slam title in Australia.

If anyone can thrive in these circumstances, it's Nadal.

Welcome back, Federer

Roger Federer makes his return to claycourt tennis at the Madrid Masters. AP Photo
Roger Federer makes his return to claycourt tennis at the Madrid Masters. AP Photo

After a two-year absence, Roger Federer will make his return to claycourt tennis next month at the Madrid Masters. The Swiss great had opted to skip this section of the season as part of a more selective schedule to ensure he was at his physical peak for Wimbledon. In 2017, it worked when he won the grass court grand slam for a record-extending eighth time.

Returning to the arduous clay courts is a curious move by Federer, although at this stage he has only committed to Madrid. He said in Dubai – after winning his 100th title – that he could play the following week at the Rome Masters but a decision wouldn’t be made until after Madrid.

It was viewed by some as a potential farewell tour by the 37-year-old Federer, who has countered by insisting he has no plans to hang up his racket. It just seems that at this stage of his career, Federer is simply choosing the events he fancies, regardless of surface.

While undoubtedly his weakest surface, Federer has still collected 11 clay court titles during his illustrious career, including the 2009 French Open to complete the career Grand Slam.

However, with so much time away from the clay, it’s difficult to foresee how he might fare on the most unique of the surfaces and how quickly he will adapt.

Either way, any time there’s a chance to see Federer in action should be welcomed, particularly during this the latter stage of his career.

Crunch time for Zverev

Alexander Zverev had an extremely successful claycourt swing in 2018 and a repeat could kickstart his season. Reuters
Alexander Zverev had an extremely successful claycourt swing in 2018 and a repeat could kickstart his season. Reuters

For a player behind only Novak Djokovic and Nadal in the rankings, it’s been quite an underwhelming season for Alexander Zverev. There was the final at the Mexican Open, but he was thoroughly outplayed by Nick Kyrgios. Beyond that, very little including early defeats in both Indian Wells and Miami.

The 21-year-old German now enters a part of the season where he has plenty of fond memories. After reaching the Monte Carlo Masters semi-final 12 months ago, Zverev embarked on a 13-match winning run, collecting the Munich Open title and the Madrid Masters, before Nadal ended his streak in the Rome final.

Zverev’s campaign in Madrid was one of the finest tournament-long performances by any player last year as he cruised to the title without facing a break point. He then achieved a personal milestone by reaching his first grand slam quarter-final at Roland Garros.

So this should be a time when Zverev’s season kicks into gear. On the flip side, he has an awful lot of ranking points to defend and a lack of success over the next few tournaments could result in a small slip down the rankings and affect his seeding for the French Open.

It feels like a pivotal few weeks in the season for Zverev.

Updated: April 14, 2019 09:53 AM

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