The clay-court swing is officially underway, the first blow struck by Andrea Petkovic of Germany, who won on the green clay of Charleston last Sunday.
On the ATP side, the clay season is off to a bizarre start.
The top seeds in the two ATP 250 events now underway (Casablanca, Morocco and Houston, Texas) didn’t get a win between them: ATP No. 9 John Isner was dusted in Houston in the second round (he had a first-round bye) by Dustin Brown. Ditto for No. 19 Kevin Anderson, who was busted in Morocco by 32-year-old No. 89 player Victor Hanescu. He’s exactly the kind of clay-bred warrior who presents often unsolvable problems for players such as Isner and Anderson, whose power isn’t complemented by the kind of patience -- or consistency -- that wins matches on clay.
The results thus far seem emblematic of what lies in store on both tours in the coming weeks. The women are loaded with players who enjoy the clay and know how to play it, like the those mentioned above.
And let’s not forget that the winner in Monterey, Calif., (a last lingering hard-court event) last week was former French Open champ Ana Ivanovic. The women’s tour is chockablock with contenders on clay. Jankovic has been No. 1 in the world and, like current No. 3 Radwanska, she’s been a Grand Slam finalist.
Should Serena Williams surrender the stranglehold she has on the WTA tour in the coming weeks, it’s really impossible to say who, if anyone, might take her place. No. 2 Li Na has been more consistent than ever in recent months, but she’s wandered off-script before. Victoria Azarenka has been out with a foot injury, and she’s not due back until Madrid in early May; who knows how long it will be until she’s match tough again? Maria Sharapova, down to No. 8, hasn’t made a final this year.
The ATP side of the game offers a clearer picture. Rafael Nadal has shown no signs of being anything less than the ruthless, implacable, inexorable punisher of the Euroclay segment. Over the last nine years, he’s won Monte Carlo (the first of the red clay Masters 1000 events) eight times, and the Madrid and Rome Masters titles a combined nine times. He’s feasted on red clay, and he’s coming back for more like he always does.
Nadal, current ATP No. 1, lost exactly one match during the two-month clay-court season last year, and that was to Novak Djokovic in the Monte Carlo final. It strains credulity to envision Nadal losing more often this year, unless Djokovic can hit the level he found when he hammered Nadal in the recent Miami Masters final. That match reminded pundits of 2011, when Djokovic won six straight against Nadal (two of those wins in the two major Euroclay Masters, Madrid and Rome).
Djokovic has to prove that he can resurrect -- and sustain -- that level on clay. Nadal is 13-3 against Djokovic on the surface, and while many of those wins were early in the rivalry (Djokovic is 3-4 in their last seven meetings on dirt), clay remains the surface on which Nadal is most effective against his nemesis.
Roger Federer, back up to No. 4, was feeling so exuberant after clinching the Davis Cup quarterfinal tie against Kazakhstan that he took a wild card into Monte Carlo. It was a bold and confident move, but let’s remember that Nadal is even more dominant over Federer on clay than he is over Djokovic. Nadal is 13-2 against the all-time Grand Slam singles champ. He hasn't lost to Federer on clay since May 2009.
As for the rest of the ATP cast, Australian Open champion Stan Wawrinka has slowed down in recent weeks, faltering in the fourth round at Indian Wells and Miami. Top 10 staples such as Tomas Berdych, David Ferrer, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (now down to No. 12) and Richard Gasquet have failed to deliver when it most counts. Andy Murray, No. 8 and the defending Wimbledon champ, always seems to struggle on clay.
If we’re going to witness a shake-up in the pecking order, it’s more likely to occur on the women’s side. Nadal is a Superman on red clay; only Djokovic has the kryptonite, and Nadal is usually immune even to that.