Five players to watch during the clay-court season

Tennis - Nadal is the man to beat, but who can beat him on clay? Dimitrov, Zverev and Thiem need to prove themselves. Clay will also clarify Djokovic's future.

by Alessandro Mastroluca
Five players to watch during the clay-court season

“I am the State,” Louis XIV, the Sun King was famously quoted to say. Rafa Nadal, the king of clay, in Paris established the empire on which the sun never sets. He's the greatest clay-court player of all time, beyond any reasonable doubt.

Cruising in his preferred part of the season, from Monte-Carlo to Roland Garros, he's the main man to watch. But he's not the only one. Nadal – Ten-time prince in Monte-Carlo, ten-time conqueror in Paris, Nadal is the man to beat.

Or better, he could lose to one of his opponents on clay but, on this surface, probably no other at the moment can really beat the world no.1. In a study on the ATP website, Craig O'Shannessy wrote of Nadal, he's the “best in our sport at winning second-serve points on both hard court and clay court.

That is due to his heavy slice delivery, and his ability to back it up with a potent Serve +1 forehand that immediately puts the returner on defence.” Specularly, he's second to Andrei Chesnokov in Break Points Converted in his whole career but he won a staggering 42.74% of return games on clay.

His position in return, with his feet so far behind the baseline, became the engine that boosted his clay-court dominance. The Spanish superstar in his fifth stint at the top of the rankings, nine-and-a-half years after the first ascension, is projected next Monday to pass John McEnroe and become the sixth player in terms of weeks spent at world no.1 behind Federer (309), Pete Sampras (286), Ivan Lendl (270), Jimmy Connors (268), Novak Djokovic (223).

Owning the highest-ever winning percentage on clay, Nadal practiced well to put the after-effects of a hip injury that has hindered his time on court in 2018 behind his shoulders. “With this injury,” he said, “I couldn’t do anything – no physical work and every movement I did, it affected the injury.

I don’t like not doing anything, so I spent time in the offices of the Rafael Nadal Academy checking different areas, [spent] time with friends and went out on the boat for a couple of days.” But now Rafa's ready to raise the curtain on his empire, to make his history great again on his beloved red clay.

Dimitrov – It's not a now or never situation, but Grigor Dimitrov needs to prove himself on clay, where patience and intelligence win over passion and basic instincts. The world no. 5 has lost four of his past five matches this season.

And in 2017 he won just four matches on this surface. “Sometimes you need one or two matches to get into a tournament and then, all of a sudden, you play the best game, Dimitrov told press in Monte-Carlo on Sunday.

The Bulgarian, making his debut against Pierre-Hugues Herbert, is ranked as low as 16th in the ATP Serve Leaderboard that measures the effectiveness on serve in the last 52 weeks. But, even more relevantly, he's just 54th among the Return Leaders in the same period having won 28.4 percent of first serve return points and 49.8 against second deliveries.

“I grew up on clay. I spent my early years in Spain, so I feel I can play good on clay,” said Dimitrov, the sixth best player for tiebreaks won and break points saved in the last 52 weeks. “It's a new year. One year older, more experienced, more mature in any way possible to try to learn something from last year and you keep on growing and you keep on working.

That's just the way it is.” No more words now, time doesn't wait for anyone. Zverev – In the Plaza de Toros in Valencia Alexander Zverev showed he still lacked the poise and character to be a matador against the bull Rafa Nadal.

Last year, he made history becoming the youngest player in ten years to win a Masters 1000 title in Rome. In Monte-Carlo, the 20-year-old is meant to play his first matches on clay at the Masters 1000 level since that triumph.

“I actually feel okay, physically. Of course, this is still going to be the first tournament on clay so there are still some adjustments to do but hopefully I can come into the tournament well and play some good matches,” he said.

The German insisted not to be concerned about the change in surfaces. “I don’t care, to be honest. It’s more about how I play,” he said. “Of course the game changes a lot on clay courts and I still quite enjoy playing on it.

I wish the clay-court season would maybe be a little bit longer like it used to be, but our sport is evolving more towards the faster surfaces.” In Rome, where he beat John Isner and Novak Djokovic back-to-back, he demonstrated to have what it takes to quickly adapt his games to different conditions.

He changed his returning patterns to control the rally and used his lateral movement to outlast his opponents. His solid down the line backhand usually gives him an option to seal the point, though on clay it could not be enough against the best master on clay.

Even on the slowest surface in modern tennis, eight points out of ten need less than four rallies to end, and he would need a bit more drive in the first one or two strokes after serve to gain the lead and break the opponent's defence.

When the rally grows longer, in fact, Zverev's strokes tend to become shorter and less angled and give a smart and quick player more chances to turn defence into offence. After the controversial divorce from Juan Carlos Ferrero, Zverev came back with the coach he considers the best on the ATP World Tour, his father, who created two top 30 players, he and his brother Mischa, from nothing.

“I’m very happy with my coaching situation. He gives me more variety in my game than any coach could give,” he said in Monte-Carlo. Thiem – Zverev's friend, Dominic Thiem, has found, in Gunther Bresnik, the best coach to nurture his ambitions and make his shy, introverted nature, a not so dissonant note in his top-10 career.

Bresnik is his medicine, his drug. But, as Ancient Greeks knew, a medicine can turn into a poison just changing the doses. Thiem found self-assurance in playing his counter-attacking game from behind, that gave him and continues to offer him time and space to deliver his strategies and develop his harmonic strokes.

But, on the other side, this level of confidence, his almost perfect symbiosis maintained Thiem stuck in his beliefs, without exploring a clearer transition to a more proactive style. His game perfectly suits the clay, and it's not a coincidence that in Buenos Aires he came back to win his first crown since triumphing in nearby Rio de Janeiro last February.

In 2017, his Brazilian title launched a solid clay-court season with 22 victories, second just to Rafa Nadal who beat him in three of their four meetings on clay. But in Rome, Thiem handed the Spaniard his only loss on the surface last year.

Those results testified that quantity needs yet to bring quality, that something is missing and that missing piece is preventing his performances and match wins to produce big trophies. “For me, it’s a very important part of the season, obviously, and I have a lot of pressure, a lot of points to defend,” assessed Thiem, who works also with Galo Blanco.

Will pressure become a motivation or a burden? Djokovic – Different, more basic questions surround Novak Djokovic. Who are you, fans and observers would like to ask. We would really want to know it. In his land of confusion, he turned back time and recalled long-time former coach Marian Vajda for the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters.

Facing a recurrent elbow injury, Djokovic compiled a modest 4-3 record this year following his victory over Dusan Lajovic, in his maiden first-round match at Masters 1000 level since Cincinnati 2006. But deeper doubts affected his performances and results, dating back to his greatest achievement, the Roland Garros triumph that made him complete the Career Grand Slam.

In Monte-Carlo, his next opponent could offer some answers to the questions dealing with Djokovic's state and future. Borna Coric has been considered a sensation since his Davis Cup debut in Umag against Andy Murray. Used to outmuscle his opponents with his solid and ultra-defensive game on clay, Coric hired Riccardo Piatti and his tennis made an immediate impact on hardcourts in Indian Wells and Miami.

He started to play with his feet nearer the baseline and his famous Djokovic-style backhand looked an even more efficient weapon. If he will manage to bring this feeling of self-belief and show this new game on the slowest surface, Coric could really become the next big thing and fulfill his potential.