2018 Clay Season Men’s Tennis Preview What Slides Ahead on the Red Dirt?

Clay court season

Photo courtesy of pxhere.com

The Clay season is already swinging and the first ATP 1000 starts this coming week in Monte Carlo so its time for The Tennis Review to get previewing the European clay court swing.

The Davis Cup suggests it might be another Clay season rout for Nadal

Nadal’s upper right leg injury that kept him out the game in Indian Wells and Miami may have given hope to his rivals and to neutral tennis fans that the recent wide open field we had in Miami might repeat itself this clay court season, but those hopes may have been crushed by Nadal’s recent Davis Cup appearance.

Last season, Nadal went into the clay season after having reached hard court finals in Melbourne, Acapulco and Miami and having played 24 matches, and went on to put together yet another dominating clay court run this time with a La Decima twist.

This year after injury and Marin Cilic got the better of him in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open, Nadal has been off tour healing and his Davis Cup wins over Philipp Kohlschreiber and Alexander Zverev tells us he has done a great job of that. Nadal has made the best of his time off, recovering from his injury and getting himself in great condition for his best part of the season.

Another couple, or even a few, ATP 1000 titles, a Barcelona title and an 11th Roland Garros (La Onzieme may not be as catchy but it’ll be even more convincing in the history books) could all the on the cards for Nadal especially considering there is no one who looks fit enough to outlast him over five sets or with enough weapons to hurt him a la Soderling ’09.

Another Clay season rout may be just what the tennis doctor ordered for Nadal’s fans and for those who love to see history unfold, but for those for whom the most interesting question this clay season might be “Who is going to inflict Nadal’s sole clay court defeat on him and where?”, competitive tennis on the red dirt this year might be about as fun as watching the clay dry after a rainy Parisian afternoon.

There could be a vacancy for the role of the season’s second best Clay Courter

Last year we thought Dominic Thiem might be a serious challenger for the big clay court titles come 2018, but over playing has stalled his progress since his stellar 2017 run and a recent right ankle injury picked up in IW means he goes into the clay season with a big question mark hanging over him.

Scheduling choices for this Clay season won’t make the two time Roland Garros semi-finalist’s life any easier. Thiem, who should be the favorite to reach the Roland Garros final if everything goes well health wise and draw wise (to be specific- he lands in the other half to Nadal), has entered himself into the ATP 250 Lyon tournament the week before Paris. That’s not the scheduling of a confident player going into a slam they could win, but more of someone who expects to need some matches going into his best slam, and it could be the schedule which leaves us with someone who has the potential to inject some much needed competitiveness into the Clay season once again too empty to make a match of it when the time to do so comes around.

A telling time for Zverev

Hopes for a new player to break out in Roland Garros this year were also pinned on soon to be 21 year old Sascha Zverev, and considering his career wins over Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Marin Cilic, and Stan Wawrinka, we would have expected better than one career fourth round slam showing (Wimbledon ’17, lost to Raonic) and a first round Roland Garros exit last year.

However, the game is not as healthy as Zverev’s ATP 1000 titles, the first of which came on Clay last year in Rome, and top ten wins might suggest. The very best 20 year olds in the game should be winning ATP 1000s, even contesting for and winning slams, and the record books do not tell the entire story, but then again the record books of today belong to a very different game of the one played even a decade ago.

Zverev lacks superior fitness or mental strength needed to defeat his slam winning or even finals contesting rivals in the big matches and the two ATP 1000 finals Zverev did win were played against struggling opponents meaning that while he has experienced the big time, he did it, to some degree, the “easy” way (compared to say Djokovic who in ’07 had to beat a prime Federer in Canada).

Zverev’s progress has also not been helped along by the tour and its changes to the formats in which its biggest matches are played.He also has yet to win a big match over five sets, which had he competed pre 2007 in ATP 1000 finals, he would have done so. The final five set format of the Masters series finals gave players a taste of winning big matches over five sets, and the confidence to know they could come out on top in such a contest, a very different one to a three setter. Zverev has had that experience in the early rounds of slams and in Davis Cup, but it has not been enough to get him into the business end of slams.

Zverev seems to have weathered the inevitable slump after his best ever period of play (Rome ’17-Montreal ’17) by reaching the Miami final and that should help his cause in the coming  Clay season  which will be a pivotal crossroads at this young stage of his career- a disappointing run could mean his young career is temporarily derailed by a sophomore slump and allow his fellow NextGenATP rivals to stride past him; another ATP 1000 title and a last eight or greater finish at Roland Garros could mean he is very much on track.

Hyeon Chung and Borna Coric have plenty of momentum to build on

Chung and Coric really stepped it up in the North American Spring Swing- Coric made the SFs and QFs of IW and Miami and Chung made the quarters at both events.

These two highly touted NextGenATP players have the defensive skills and the depth, consistency and smart point construction from the baseline to excel on Clay, and the surface compensates for their weaknesses on the serve, both men able to work their way into every point on their service game if their first shot lets them down.

Zverve has overshadowed both men in terms of achievements, though not in terms of slam success in which category Chung has the bragging rights, but Chung and Coric’s progress has been steadier and more under the radar which may make things easier in the long run and seems to have worked out for them when facing Zverev himself with both players having winning head to heads over Zverev, (Coric 2-1, but Zverev won their last match, in Miami; Chung 2-0) and both men are partly accountable for Zverev’s poor slam record having beaten him at Melbourne ’18(Chung) and New York ’17(Coric).

Chung should be the favorite in every 250 he plays this clay season and a 500 final or an ATP 1000 QF or SF would not be a surprise. The Korean pulled out of Houston and will not be in the non-mandatory ATP 1000 Monte Carlo event, and that break should give him plenty of time to regroup and work on some of the technical aspects of his game like the serve which was much improved in Miami.

Coric has already won a Clay 250 (Casablanca ’17) and should be in the QFs or better at every clay court event he plays. Consistency was one important factor missing from the Croatian’s career and now he seems to have found it, clay could be where he shows us that he is not just a Djokovic or Murray on his best and worst days respectively but a player in his very own right.

Keep an eye out for Thanasi Kokkinakis 

Kokkinakis’ win over Roger Federer opened up that draw and the Australian could be tearing up a few more over the next couple of months. The 22 year old has had his best slam finish on Clay (3rd round of Roland Garros ’15) as a wildcard and will also be a wildcard in the Monte Carlo draw where he has been placed in Nadal’s section.

Other players to keep an eye on:

Pablo Cuevas- Strong as they come and with plenty of experience on clay.

Albert Ramos Vinolas- Last year’s Monte Carlo finalist with a forehand to make you think twice about going to it on the dirt.

Pablo Carreno Busta- The recent Miami semi-finalist has found his form again.

Kyle Edmund- That big forehand is a match winning shot on clay.

David Goffin- Has been out of the game with an unfortunate eye injury and was beaten soundly by Joao Sousa in Miami, but if if he is healthy and rested, watch out.

Juan Martin del Potro- Will not make an appearance until Madrid, but has the game to do well there and will be a player best avoided in Rome and Paris, too.

When it comes to Djokovic, write him off at your peril

Back with Marian Vajda as his main coach, Djokovic does not come into the clay season on the back of any form- opening round exits in IW and Miami, the last one versus Paire particularly concerning- but he may not have really been ready to play at all and not all comebacks can be Federeresque.

Vajda knows the heart of Djokovic’s game, and maybe even the man himself, better than any coach out there and might get his charge feeling good again and get that Djokovic muscle memory, both physically and mentally, in tune in time to capitalize on the fact there are few real clay courters out there, few men who know the surface as well as Djokovic, who has won every title that matters on the red dirt, and while expectations should still be low for the former No.1, should he get some form going and start sliding across the dirt with commitment, focus, and passion, those who have written Djokovic off might be eating their words in a couple of month’s time.

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Christian Deverille

Christian Deverille is a tennis writer with a diploma in Freelance Sports Writing from the London School of Journalism. He loves all things tennis, most of all the Federer and del Potro forehands.
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