3 questions heading into the clay court season on the ATP Tour

*See Exeposé sport online for original article

As the spring European season starts on the red stuff, Kieran Jackson answers the pressing questions on the men’s tour following an exhilarating start to 2017

1. Can the GOAT really win the French Open having not played a tournament on clay beforehand?

Roger Federer is certainly the man in form right now. And no, you aren’t reading a piece from 2007. The Swiss’ miraculous turnaround following injury which halted his campaign after Wimbledon last season, has included victories at the Indian Wells Masters and the Miami Masters, as well as the Australian Open. It has been the stuff of legend, and a combination of aggressive shot-making coupled with an astonishing ability at the age of 35 to grind his opponents down & win the crucial points at crucial stages has allowed Federer to arguably play some of the best tennis of his life.

However, after his victory in Key Biscayne, Federer quickly announced that he would be taking some extended time-off, and planned on not playing a tournament until the French Open at the end of May. An astute move, Federer is at the age when he has to listen to his body, and a period of six weeks to let his weary muscles recuperate seems very sensible thinking for a man focused solely on titles, not on ranking. As a result, he won’t play any of the European clay-court tournaments in the run-up to Roland Garros, with many saying this will adversely effect his chances on what is commonly known as his least favourite, and successful, surface. Do I agree with that assessment? Not one bit. Federer is a once in a generation player, who fully has the experience, talent and motivation to win what would only be his second title in Paris. Though becoming accustomed to the intricacies of clay-court movement will no doubt take time, he’ll hope to gain this (as well as match practice) in the early rounds, before reaching his maximum ability in the latter stages of the tournament. You would be a brave man to bet against him.

“FEDERER IS A ONCE IN A GENERATION PLAYER, WHO FULLY HAS THE EXPERIENCE, TALENT AND MOTIVATION TO WIN WHAT WOULD ONLY BE HIS SECOND TITLE IN PARIS.”

2. Can Murray and Djokovic resurrect their seasons on the red stuff?

For the two pace-setters for the past couple of years on the men’s tour, 2017 has so far been undeniably disappointing for Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, world number one and two respectively. For Andy, (or Sir Andy, as he is now reluctantly called) a shock fourth-round loss opened his campaign to unknown quantity Mischa Zverev in Australia, a Grand Slam which he is yet to win despite reaching the final five times. Although he won the ATP-500 level tournament in Dubai shortly after, his surprise second-round loss to Canadian Vasek Pospisil in Indian Wells has made for a difficult start to Murray’s reign at the top of the rankings. There’s no doubt that following a superb end to 2016, in which Murray won a consecutive five tournaments to reach number one, Murray has look jaded and weary, and in need of time off. This was best illustrated by a bout of shingles he caught in February, which has perhaps linked to his consequent elbow injury forcing him out of Great Britain’s Davis Cup tie against France. But for a man whose uninspiring performances on the clay have long been eradicated, as highlighted by an excellent swing last year (in which he won the Rome Masters and reached the final in Paris), there’s no reason why he can’t regain some form in Europe over the next few weeks – as long as he is back to full health.

Can Andy Murray win his first French Open in Paris?

For Djokovic, it has been a somewhat similar story. Disappointment in Australia would be an understatement, given his incredulous second-round defeat to world number 117 Denis Istomin, at a tournament he has won six times in the past. Since then, he has been thwarted by exuberant Aussie Nick Kyrigos, in both Acapulco and Indian Wells, before taking Miami off due to an elbow problem. Novak’s main aim heading into the red stuff will be to find some form which will make him feel confident of defending his crown at Roland Garros, and building some momentum that we haven’t seen from the Serb since this time last year.

3. The chasing pack: which players could break through during the next month?

And what of the rest? Well, Rafael Nadal will certainly fancy his chances on a surface he has made his own throughout his career. The “King of Clay” has, alongside nemesis Federer, found some brilliant form at the start of 2017, and will naturally look to add to his vast list of titles on the red stuff. For others close in the rankings, Stan Wawrinka will be confident of a good run at Roland Garros, a tournament he won in 2015, whilst Tomas Berdych and youngster Dominic Thiem will certainly be in the running at most of the warm-up events, particularly in Monte-Carlo and Madrid. Kyrigos will also hope he can translate his decent early-season form onto the clay.

Despite the form of the top ranked players, don’t count out your classic clay-court specialists to spring some surprises in the next few months. Italian Fabio Fognini will pose problems for anyone he comes up against (though ironically, he may be missing a week or two when his wife, ex-tennis player Flavia Pennetta gives birth in the coming weeks), and Spaniards Pablo Carreno Busta, Albert Ramos-Vinolas and David Ferrer will be hopeful that their South American clay court stint earlier on this season will be beneficial heading into the European swing. Also, watch out for the South American contingent of Pablo Cuevas, Diego Schwartzman and Juan Martin Del Petro, players who grew up playing on clay and will be confident of causing some upsets. It’s going to be a fascinating couple of months.

Clay Court Calendar – Key Events:

16th April-23rd April: Monte-Carlo Masters (ATP 1000)

24th April-30th April: Barcelona Open (ATP 500)

7th May-14th May: Madrid Open (ATP 1000)

14th May-21st May: Internazionali BNL d’Italia, Rome (ATP 1000)

28th May-11th June: French Open, Roland Garros (Grand Slam)

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