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Big Four search for their way on clay

Two weeks into the European clay season, the established order in men's tennis is in disarray. The Big Four are dominant no more. Rafael Nadal has wobbled mentally, and Novak Djokovic physically. Roger Federer is still regaining his footing, while Andy Murray has yet to make his presence felt on this surface.

Meanwhile, Stanislas Wawrinka leads the points race after winning the Australian Open and Monte Carlo this year, though he insists he is not aiming for No. 1. "To be No. 1 you have to win almost every tournament you play," he said.

With Masters events at Madrid and Rome as well as the French Open still to come, the field looks wide open, making the rest of the clay season very intriguing.

Rafael Nadal

Rafael Nadal losing, on clay, to fellow Spaniards. Those are things that rarely occur in that combination, but they have now happened in consecutive weeks.

The world No. 1 first fell to David Ferrer in the Monte Carlo quarterfinals for his first defeat to Ferrer on clay in 10 years and then lost to Nicolas Almagro in the Barcelona quarterfinals after not dropping a set against him in any of their previous meetings. It's his worst start to the European clay-court season in a decade.

Nadal has admitted shortcomings in his performances, saying he "did not play the right way" against an in-form Ferrer and "was in control" for most of the match against Almagro but could not close it out.

Nadal ascribes his shakiness to a lack of confidence after the Australian Open final, when he suffered a back injury and was defeated in four sets.

But don't discount him yet -- as suddenly as Nadal begins to look vulnerable, he could just as quickly return to looking formidable. He still has two tournaments to find his game ahead of the French Open and insists the losses will not change his mindset.

"The only thing that changes for Roland Garros, is that after 10 years people will not be telling me I am a big favorite," said the eight-time French Open champion. "But my [attitude] is the same."

The bigger effect might be on the rest of the field, which has often gone half-beaten into clay matches against him. Now, they will be looking for their opportunities.

Novak Djokovic

With Nadal not taking command of the clay season as expected, Djokovic was the one seen as most likely to step in, especially after winning back-to-back hard-court events at Indian Wells and Miami. But he was slowed by a wrist injury just before Monte Carlo, also putting his clay-court campaign in doubt.

At first his arm had just a minor piece of tape, but that had turned into heavy strapping by the time he played his Monte Carlo semifinal against Federer.

"I tried not to think or talk about it; I did everything I could really; I was on the medications every day, " the world No. 2 revealed afterward. " I cannot play tennis for some time. How long, I don't know."

The timing was particularly acute given that the French Open is his major remaining goal. But following some tests, Djokovic announced that "the situation with the injury is better than it first seemed" and he would be ready for his next event in Madrid after some rest and treatment. It could, however, leave him short of practice going into the tournament.

Meanwhile, there has been some off-court news to announce. He is expecting his first child with fiancée Jelena Ristic. "Jelena is pregnant," he wrote excitedly on Twitter. "We will be parents soon."

Roger Federer

As Nadal and Djokovic wobbled, it was Federer who emerged as the standard bearer for the Big Four at Monte Carlo. But Federer couldn't stop their grip on the big titles from being broken for the second time this year by friend and compatriot Wawrinka, who edged the 17-time Grand Slam champ in three sets.

"It was one of those finals I think I could have won, but Stan was tougher at the end," Federer said.

There have been a few of those recently. Although Federer's results continue to be a big improvement over last season, he has dropped some close matches this year. Others include a loss to Lleyton Hewitt in the Brisbane final, Djokovic in the final at Indian Wells and Kei Nishikori in the quarterfinals at Miami. Federer's title in Dubai, however, featured a tight semifinal victory against Djokovic.

Overall, however, Federer seemed pleased with his Monte Carlo showing, which put him back in the mix for the rest of the clay events.

But there is another event in which he is planning to take part. His schedule could be interrupted by the birth of his third child, with the 17-time Grand Slam champion saying his priority is "trying to be there."

"I've played enough tennis matches," he said. "Missing a tournament or missing a match wouldn't change anything for me."

Andy Murray

Although the others have been finding their clay-court feet, Murray has taken a bit of a break and begun the search for a new coach. He also returned to his hometown last week to receive an honorary doctorate and the Freedom of Stirling, where he gave an emotional acceptance speech, which received national media attention.

Before that, the defending Wimbledon champion was looking at potential coaching candidates, having said he would like to find someone before the French Open. It might take longer, he told the BBC, saying there are "seven or eight" people he is considering.

"I would have someone in place before the French Open, but it's hard because there are a lot of things that go into it with contracts and finances and stuff like that," he said. "What I have done over the last couple of weeks is I've got quite a few names down that I would be considering and taken some names off the list that wouldn't be suitable or would not be able to do it."

Murray and Ivan Lendl ended their coaching relationship before Miami, having won two Grand Slams together.

Murray said he did not mind if his next choice was a big name or not, as long as he or she had the time and ability he required. "And they also need to fit in with the team because I'm not going to clear out all of the guys I work with and bring a coach in who wants to do things completely differently," he said.

For now, Murray is training in Valencia ahead of his first clay-court event at Madrid. He will not be expected to make a big impact this year. He tends to start slowly on his least favorite surface, and is also dealing with returning from back surgery and finding a coach.

Then again, the men's tour these days looks like one where anything can happen.