Men’s Tennis European Clay Court Season 2017 Who Will Step Up? Five Faces

Thiem Zverev

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The 2017 men’s tennis European clay court season could see some of the tour’s most promising players take a step up to fulfilling their potential. The Tennis Review takes a look at Dominic Thiem, David Goffin, Alexander Zverev, Kei Nishikori, and Martin Klizan and what could help and hinder them taking that next step.

Dominic Thiem

Why he has a chance to take the next step:

Thiem has it all- aggression, defense, and that all important ability to transition between them on a surface which demands the peaks of both styles.

Thiem’s serve earns him short balls to feed off or a weak return on his formidable forehand or one-handed backhand side with which he can take control of the point, moving his opponent around the court, before forcing an error or hitting a winner off either side.

Thiem’s athleticism means he can defend, using his slice to keep the ball low on the forehand side and have them dig deep for the ball, and his slice and loopy forehands and angles buy him the time he needs to reset the point and get his groundies going again. Thiem not only can switch from defense to offence but also transitions well from the baseline to inside the court, moving forward once he has the right ball, and finishing off the point.

Thiem can play with the best of them on clay all day, too- his great fitness and stamina meaning he can go the distance, which on a slower surface like clay, can be pretty far.

Why he might slip up:

Thiem can struggle on the big points, especially on break points, (though this has improved a lot over the last year, he is 24th with 41.2% of break points converted on the ATP stats leaderboard)), when he tends to be more hesitant to come in and end points.

Thiem can also be impatient when faced with consistent opponents who can move him around and vary their shots to prevent him getting any rhythm, forcing him to go for too much power, often at the wrong time, and consequently producing too many unforced errors, a weakness Borna Coric exploited so opportunistically at the recent Miami Open.

Best clay results:

Roland Garros semis 2016, Rio Open title 2017, Buenos Aires 2016.

The Step-up:

The Roland Garros final, an ATP 1000 semi (Thiem has been to four ATP 1000 quarters including Rome ’16).

Thiem said after his Miami loss to Borna Coric he was happy to be looking ahead to the clay season, the surface on which he has given his best performance on in 2017, winning Rio. Some rest after an early exit in Miami and the confidence Rio and his quarter final match versus Stan Wawrinka in Indian Wells bodes well for his first appearance in an ATP 1000 semi-final which could happen somewhere like Monte Carlo with Djokovic returning from injury, Murray and Federer absent, Wawrinka so inconsistent, and Nadal unproven this clay court season, or Rome if Thiem gets some momentum going.

The Roland Garros final might be a little out of reach at this stage of his career, but Thiem is a hard worker and passionate about tennis and while it may not come in 2017, it will not be too far before he is playing for the Roland Garros title.

David Goffin

Why he has a chance to take the next step:

On clay, if you cannot overpower your rivals, then you need to be able to rally with them, and Goffin has some of the tour’s best rallying skills and variety of shot to surprise his opponents on a surface where the irregular bounce and at times fabric lines (the ones at Roland Garros, though, are painted) throw enough curve-balls at players as it is.

The Belgian can mix angles, spins, flat strokes, hit drop shots, lobs, change the direction of the ball, the speed of the ball, the depth of the ball, hit past his opponent, feed off his opponent’s pace, hit winners on the run, and the list goes on.

Goffin is also able to step inside the court and create pace on short balls and his great movement means he can transition up to the net where he showcases his flair, touch and reflexes.

If you are exhausted just reading that list, imagine how Goffin’s opponents feel after being on the receiving end of one of his winning rallies.

Why he might slip up:

Reading about Goffin, one might wonder why he has not won a slam or been No.1, however while his game has plenty of positives, he lacks a stand out shot, much needed in the modern game.

Mentally, Goffin is not one of the strongest players on tour either. His biggest loss in his career, to Dominic Thiem in the quarters of last year’s Roland Garros, still seems to bothers him. A loss Goffin is going to have to put behind him if he wants to take the next step anytime soon.

Best clay results:

Roland Garros quarter-finals ’17, Kitzbuhel title ’14.

The Step-up:

Goffin has been to a few ATP 1000 semi finals, so an ATP 1000 final would be the next logical step considering his all court success.

Given the right draw and some luck, Goffin competing in the 2017 Roland Garros semi-final would not be a surprise.

Zverev clay

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Alexander Zverev

Why he has a chance to take the next step:

Zverev’s double-handed backhand – think potential Safin, Djokovic or Nalbandian quality- has the power and the pace to dictate rallies, and he knows how to construct a rally and get himself into position to hit the winner.

The German also has a big serve for plenty of easy points, helpful at a time when the ATP tour is as ruled by the return of serve as it once was the serve.

Zverev’s fighting qualities and his flair for big matches against top players is also a trait that will do him well at a time when the older generations are dominating the tour.

Why he might slip up:

Inexperience. Zvevev may be up for the fight, but he still lacks the experience to know which punch could be the killer, a very exploitable weakness on the big points when you are facing the likes of Nadal, Djokovic and Federer and tough competitors like Kyrgios and Thiem who know which blows to deliver.

However, Clay also covers up a lot of Zverev’s weaknesses, like his net game and his weaker forehand side- on clay he has plenty of time to get to the net on the right ball, and that aspect of his game is improving all the time, and the time to work the point round to his backhand side.

Best clay results:

Roland Garros ’16 third round, Munich ’16 final.

The Step-up:

Roland Garros last sixteen. Zverev has yet to make the last sixteen of a slam, and he has progressed enough recently to even perhaps skip a step with the right draw and make the last eight.

An ATP 500 title would be a step up, too, and Zverev has looked ready to win a title of that status, but the European clay season only has one of them, the Barcelona event, which is, with the likes of Nadal and Nishikori in the draw, one of the toughest clay court events going.

Kei Nishikori

Nishikori

Photo courtesy of www.jiji.com

Why he has a chance to take the next step:

With an aggressive baseline game, and strong off both sides, Nishikori can dominate a point no problem, and knows when to move in and finish the point mid-court and at the net.

Nishikori has a lot of experience behind him now, too, which is going to make the difference at some point of his career when the current Big Five are returned and he is one of the tour’s veterans. Experience counts for a lot on clay, a surface on which long matches and grueling points demand match toughness and some hard earned memories, both mental and muscular, of past marathons competed, and Roland Garros has been won by plenty of players in later stages of their careers such as Andres Gomez, Andre Agassi, Alberto Costa and Roger Federer.

Why he might slip up:

Unfortunately for Nishikori, his weak areas are the two most important parts of the game- the mental and the physical. Nishikori too often underperforms in matches he is expected to win such as last year’s last 16 Roland Garros versus Richard Gasquet.

If Nishikori’s mind does not melt, then his body collapses like it did in the Madrid ’14 final.

Like all players, Nishikori needs both his mind and body to be in sync if he going to reach his potential, and he has been close, as seen from some of his career great performances at the US Open. The big question is whether or not he is too fragile in both aspects to ever realize what is deep inside him, a question which, from a player like Nishikori who has not often delivered when expected, will likely be answered when he is under the radar, which, with tennis eyes now on Thiem, Zverev and Kyrgios, is just about now.

Best clay results:

Barcelona ’14. ’15 title. Madrid ’14 runner up, Roland Garros Quarter-finals 2015.

The Step-up:

For someone who has been to three ATP 1000 finals and a Grand Slam final, the next step for Nishikori is the big titles and only a title in Madrid, Rome, Monte Carlo or Roland Garros will satisfy his fans and tennis pundits.

Klizan clay 2017

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Martin Klizan

Why he has a chance to take the next step:

Klizan has a classic aggressive baseline game. A great ball striker, not afraid to go for his shots, with a great rally ball who can get his rival out of position and hit the winner.

Klizan is one of the most mentally strong underdogs on the tour and is not afraid of the ball, himself, or his opponents, qualities which have made him one of the players most likely to cause an upset as he did defeating Kei Nishikori in the first round of Roland Garros ’14, and two years later dismissing defending champion Stan Wawrinka in his Philippe Chatrier opener.

Why he might slip up:

Injuries. Klizan is one of those players who can win from qualifying or can enter an ATP 500 after hardly playing and win the trophy, as he did in Rotterdam and Hamburg last season, only to then suffer injury from the exertion needed to perform such feats and lose valuable momentum and confidence as a result.

That up and down nature in Klizan’s results is also present in his mental game. As mentally strong as Klizan can be, he can have meltdowns, too, as he did versus Stan Wawrinka in the first round of this year’s Australian Open.

Best clay results:

Munich title ’14, Hamburg ’17.

The Step-up:

For a player who has won two ATP 500 trophies, Klizan has disappointed in bigger events, never going past the fourth round of a slam, (US Open ’12, upsetting Tsonga on the way), and then only once. Klizan has also never been past the second round of an ATP 1000 event, with a 24% success rate in 25 appearances, one of tennis’ mystifying stats.

Technically, then, the next step would be a Roland Garros last eight place, and an ATP 1000 last 32, both achievements long overdue for the 2006 French Open Boy’s champion.

Who do you think will take the next step in their careers this European Clay Court Season? I would love to hear from you in the comments below.

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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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