ATP Clay Court Season 2016 Seven Questions Djokovic Nadal Zverev Thiem

ATP Clay court

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The Clay Court Season is underway and there are plenty of questions tennis fans will have about what the red stuff will serve up. The Tennis Review gives you seven of them.

Will Novak Djokovic win the French Open and complete the career grand slam?

The big one. The question that will dominate the tennis media this Clay court season much like Djokovic dominates the ATP.

Once again, just as he did from 2011-2015, Djokovic goes into Roland Garros as the favorite, and once again, as he has done since 2012, he has to deal with the pressure that comes with not only that but also with trying to complete the career grand slam.

That pressure, and the pressure his opponents put on him has always gotten the better of him. In 2011, he was outplayed by Roger Federer, in 2012 he double faulted championship point down in a tight fourth set, in 2013 in the semis versus Nadal, he hit the net when leading by a break in the fifth, lost the point and never recovered, in 2014, he caught a virus and played one of his worst matches of the season after winning the opening set, and in 2015 he came up against a Stan Wawrinka armed with exactly the right game plan to beat him.

Will one of these scenarios stop him again? Will a new one get in the way such as an inspired up and comer or a lower ranked big hitter redlining? Or will Djokovic finally join Rod Laver, Andre Agassi, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer as the elite few to win the career slam?

Djokovic himself says winning Roland Garros is not an obsession, but a wish, a dream, and that he will tackle it step by step.

Certainly, many will be wishing Djokovic well as he attempts to live his dream. The French crowd have warmly applauded him the last couple of seasons when he has received his runners up trophy and he will not come undone because of a lack of support.

Whether or not Djokovic wins, he, like Sampras before him who could not win in Paris, or Lendl, who could not win Wimbledon, will go down as an all time great.

If he does win, he will, if he keeps picking up slams, go down, in some eyes, as the greatest. A dream every pro tennis player has when they set out on that long road to the top, one that for Djokovic will be just seven matches away in the third week of May.

Can Nadal ‘come back’?

Nadal is back in many ways- he is no. 5 in the ATP rankings, he has beaten the likes of Murray and Wawrinka this past year, and he took a set off Federer in the Basel final.

But he is not really back in the way which for many really matters- as the world’s greatest clay courter or even the reigning Roland Garros champion, a position he held nine times.

Little suggests he will get back there soon, but this is Nadal, the one-time comeback king, and his clay court season could turn on a single point.

That point could be won with confident decision making, and confidence is where the difference between coming back and ‘coming back’ really lie for Nadal.

That confidence might start with his comeback from match point down versus Alexander Zverev in Indian Wells or the tiebreak set he contested with Djokovic in the semis- the furthest he had taken the world No.1 in a set since he beat him in the 2014 Roland Garros final.

If Nadal can draw on those moments, he could get some more confidence going, and if he succeeds in doing so and goes into Roland Garros with an ATP 1000 final or title behind him, then we might see a very different Nadal to the one we have seen in big matches this past season, a Nadal none of his opponents, particularly Novak Djokovic, will want to see across the court from them in Paris.

Can Dominic Thiem or David Goffin reach an ATP 1000 final?

Thiem and Goffin are faces to watch this clay court season. Both have great clay games, have success on the surface, and are ranked in the top 15.

With both men experiencing success at ATP 250 and 500s, and Goffin has also had some success at ATP 1000s with recent semi-final finishes in Indian Wells and Miami (Thiem’s best finish at an ATP 1000 was Miami quarters 2015), the next step is to challenge for ATP 1000 titles and make finals.

Thiem has proven he can take on the big players with his Buenos Aires win from match point down versus Nadal and his close match with Djokovic in Miami. Goffin, too, has shown he can close out tough matches versus the elite with his win over Wawrinka in Indian Wells.

What we have yet to learn is whether they can do it in an ATP 1000 semi or final. If they can, then the next question will be can they do it at Roland Garros. Goffin has already had some success there, reaching the fourth round as a lucky loser in 2012 when he took a set off Federer. Thiem has not made it past the second round in his two visits to Roland Garros, but he has been to the US Open last sixteen.

This clay court season, the two might answer questions about their potential in matches against one another. With both seeded to reach the last sixteens or last eights at upcoming clay events, they could meet in the last eight or deeper. So far, their head to head is 4-2 in Goffin’s favor, but tied at 1-1 on Clay, with the Belgian taking their first clay court final in Kitzbuhel in 2014 and Thiem taking their 2015 Gstaad final.

Should the two contest another clay court final this season, that match, for those interested in how a future Roland Garros final might look, will be one to watch.

Watch highlights of Goffin versus Thiem in the 2015 Gstaad final below.

Will the Next Gen follow up on their first quarter success?

Alexander Zverev and Nick Kyrgios are part of tennis’s next generation and have been living up to that billing very well in the first quarter of 2016 with Zverev beating Cilic and Simon, and Kyrgios winning his first career title in Marseilles and making his first ATP 1000 quarter-final (Miami).

Both have had some success on clay- Zverev made the semis of the 2014 Hamburg Open and Kyrgios defeated Roger Federer in Madrid last year and was runner up in Estoril so the signs are there that both young men have the tools to keep their 2016 runs going strong.

With young players really struggling to break through on the tour the past few years, momentum is key for both these men. Zverev, ranked 54, and Kyrgios, 20, have put in the hard work to get that far, if they can keep focused and get some lucky breaks here and there, they could rise even higher this clay court season and keep doing the fine job they have been doing of breathing some new life into the ATP tour.

Can Stan Wawrinka defend his Roland Garros title?

The streakiest of slam winners, Wawrinka has shown a more consistent level since winning Roland Garros last year going on to win ATP 500 crowns in Tokyo and Dubai and winning in Chennai.

Last season, Wawrinka stunned many tennis fans when he came back from a set down to overwhelm Djokovic in the Roland Garros final. This year, he could repeat that feat or crash out in the first round, and his incoming form will make us none the wiser when it comes to predictions.

The 2014 Monte Carlo champion will benefit in some way from Djokovic’s French Open quest. Much of the media focus will be on the No.1 and not on the defending champion. Under the radar and on the big stage is where the Swiss likes to be- if he gets there again, that could be, much like his 2015 Roland Garros win, a pretty stunning scene.

Can Murray repeat his 2015 Clay form?

Murray is world No.2 right now and part of the reason for that was his consistency across all surfaces last season.

The Scot, who developed on the clay courts of Barcelona as a teen, had always under-performed on the surface until last year when he won Munich, Madrid, beating Nadal in the final, and took Djokovic to five sets in the Roland Garros semi.

This season, Murray has had mixed fortunes- he made the Australian Open final for the fifth time but lost early in both Indian Wells and Miami despite leading 3-1 in the third sets of both matches.

With the grass season just a couple of months away, the clay court season is when Murray needs to get some confidence.

Memories of his 2015 clay court season might be just what the Scot needs to get his game- which when on is one of the few that can trouble Novak Djokovic- going and to get his season back to one worthy of a world No.2.

How will Federer fare coming back from his first ever surgery?

Federer has done amazingly well to not have had surgery his entire 18 year career. The 2009 Roland Garros champ has only been sidelined for 2 months as a result, and has been ready to return for a couple of weeks, but how will the surgery impact his game and will there be any mental effects?

In Monte Carlo, where Federer makes his much awaited return to the tour, everything looks very positive. Federer has talked about how he has benefited from the rest he has had as a result of the surgery, the fine preparation he has had with nine to ten days of practice in Monte Carlo, and the fact his knee has not bothered him.

What he does not know, he says, is how the knee will hold up in match conditions. Fortunately, Federer’s comeback coincides with the clay which will be forgiving on the knee, and his playing in front of European clay court fans who will, if his knee struggles to support him in a tight match, do as much as they can to compensate.

What questions do you have about the clay court season? Let us know below and we will discuss it with you.

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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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