Who will have his day on the clay? We know the favorites; we know the top dark horses. But there's a lot more to take into consideration.
Our experts attempt to answer the all-important questions as we head into the first major clay event of the year, in Monte Carlo.
How will clay change the dynamic between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal?
Howard Bryant: If you need any more proof of the Djokovic mandate, Djokovic victories will be significant. Although Djokovic did not win the French Open last year, he lost to Roger Federer, not Nadal, at Roland Garros. Djokovic beat Nadal on clay in Rome and Madrid, so there hasn't been a surface on which Nadal has beaten Djokovic since the U.S. Open in 2010 and Barclays year-enders in London. The clock is truly ticking on Nadal's ability to stay in this rivalry. A Djokovic roll through Nadal on clay would take all the sand out of the hourglass.
Greg Garber: There's a fair chance it won't change anything between the two. Go back to last year: Two of the matches in Rafa's 0-for-7 streak against Djokovic came on clay last May. Djokovic beat him in straight sets in the finals at Madrid and Rome. Nadal was fortunate that Federer eliminated Djokovic in the semifinals at Roland Garros, allowing him to win his sixth French Open in seven years. Djokovic is the best mover on hard courts, while Rafa is superior on clay. In order to take advantage, he has to start changing the stubborn patterns that Djokovic has solved for the past year.
Joanne Gerstner: Once upon a time, not too long ago, the shift to the clay of Europe would have meant it was Nadal's time to shine without peer. Nadal owned clay, like few others in the game ever have. But things have changed. Djokovic is no slouch on clay and feels confident. His speed and shot-making match Nadal's -- and best him when it counts. The margin of error for Nadal has slimmed, with Djokovic closing in hard.
Ravi Ubha: Based on last year's results, it shouldn't change the dynamic at all. Djokovic not only beat Nadal in Madrid and Rome, but he didn't lose a set. As such, Nadal might wish they were still on hard courts (not factoring in the knees). He took a set off Djokovic in the U.S. Open final and went one better in the Australian Open final. He's getting closer. However, his improved performances against Djokovic can only give Nadal a boost as they head into his favorite part of the year. This time he'll be more ready -- mentally -- to face Djokovic on dirt.
Matt Wilansky: Nadal's current losing streak to Djokovic aside, there's another factor to consider: Rafa's knees. Movement is paramount on clay. Even if Nadal is 99 percent of what he was in 2011, it's not enough. Djokovic covers ground and keeps himself in points better than anyone else in the world. So for Rafa to finally crack the Djokovic code, even on clay, he needs to be feeling perfectly fit. Even if Rafa is able to sneak in one victory on dirt this spring, it's not going to change the dynamic.
How concerned should we be with Nadal's physical condition?
Bryant: Nowhere near as concerned as Nadal should be about his own physical condition. Knee tendonitis is major, especially when he needs his mental game focused on Djokovic, not his health. It took him out of his game the last time he lost at Roland Garros, back in 2009, to Robin Soderling. He subsequently skipped Wimbledon, and really got blown off the court during the hard-court season by Djokovic and Juan Martin del Potro. Del Potro crushed him in Montreal and then again in the 2009 U.S. Open semis. Nadal wasn't the same until 2010. So concern should be quite high.
Garber: No more than we have been for the past several years. Last week, Rafa said his tricky left knee was feeling better. Comments from his coach, Uncle Toni, in the Spanish media seemed to confirm that it's business as usual -- which means Rafa will be serviceable for the clay season. The tendonitis, clearly, is a real concern, but Rafa's team has been dealing with this for more than three years. If he can figure out a way to skip, say, Madrid -- just say no, Rafa -- he'll be good to go for Roland Garros and a chance to win his seventh title in eight years.
Gerstner: I think there should be concern, given Nadal's recent history of being painfully banged up. The sliding and slippery movement on clay is not fun for most, but it's second nature for Nadal. He's sliding on all surfaces anyway, but his ankles and knees have subsequently suffered. As Nadal gets pushed more by players such as Djokovic, the danger of more injuries becomes very real.
Ubha: We should be quite concerned. His only blip at the French Open since his reign at Roland Garros began was in 2009, when his left knee was bothering him (along with the separation of his parents). Then again, Nadal says the knee now isn't as bad as it was three years ago. It all depends on how bad it is. Positively for him, we're not in early August -- he's not about to pound the hard courts of the U.S. Open Series. Unlike in years past, too, he won't have to play three straight weeks in the clay swing.
Wilansky: Here's the thing: Nadal says he's feeling OK. Maybe he is; maybe he isn't. It could all be a bunch of posturing. The underlying problem, though, is that with all his physical setbacks, we've seen a discernible difference in his demeanor -- on and off the court. He doesn't look happy anymore. If he doesn't take a positive approach into his matches, especially against Djokovic, Nadal will have little chance of dominating the way he has for so many years on the dirt. After three-plus years of periodic knee pain, it's going to start directly affecting results.
What do you expect from John Isner during the clay swing?
Bryant: The surprise for Isner this year isn't just his wins over three top-five players (Federer on clay in Davis Cup; Djokovic at Indian Wells; Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on clay at Davis Cup), but the honing and shaping of his game. He is a big server, obviously, but his clay game is a net game, as he showed against Tsonga. He is now a big threat against everyone from Tsonga down, but to swim the gulf to Andy Murray, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, his game will require more precision. The slower surface will help him. If he can win when he's not serving huge, look out.
Garber: After talking with him before he started play in Houston, I'd say a lot. Going in there, he was 4-0 on the dirt, having won tough Davis Cup matches on the road against some terrific players. Isner and his coach, Craig Boynton, say clay actually improves his game because the ball bounces higher -- right in the 6-foot-9 athlete's strike zone. It also affords him more time to set up and execute his favorite shot, a lethally heavy forehand. Isner lost to Rafa in the first round at Roland Garros a year ago but took him to five sets. He says he's ready to go deep in Paris. I believe him.
Gerstner: As always with Isner, it's going to be big and interesting. His nasty serve will pick up dust on the clay, slowing it down a bit but making it unpredictable to pick up on a good bounce as it slides. Isner's all-around game has picked up this year, making him more than just a serve-bomber. It's going to be a bit awkward watching the big guy slide his way around, but he's got more than a decent shot during the clay season.
Ubha: I expect a lot from Isner. Who wouldn't? He has beaten Federer and Tsonga on clay this season, and took out Djokovic in Indian Wells. The slower surfaces give Isner more time to load up off the ground. Isner hasn't had a problem getting pumped for the high-profile matches. However, he's susceptible to suffering early at Slams, and that includes at the French. He can't afford to waste energy in the early rounds. If he advances to the second week in Paris, none of the top guys would be surprised if he wins it all.
Wilansky: We've begun to understand just what makes Isner tick on clay. But making the leap from a couple of one-offs (impressive as they were) to running through a loaded field in Monte Carlo, Madrid, Rome or Paris is a tough ask. Isner will win plenty of free points, even if he's playing on a swamp, considering his suffocating serve. But he's going to need to prove that his other weapons can bail him out on clay, too. That's just the nature of the dirt. So, for now, the expectations should be tempered.
The dirt invariably produces surprises. Who should we look out for this year?
Bryant: The choice would have to be Isner, since he's surging and his game seems to embrace the clay. Then there is Murray, who isn't great on clay but just buzzed his hair to resemble that of coach Ivan Lendl, who had his first major victory on clay at the 1984 French Open. It would be nice to see an extended run from David Ferrer, who dropped to No. 6 in the rankings. The sentimental flier is on David Nalbandian, who is playing gritty, inspired tennis and is always a tough out for anyone. But the guy to watch is whether Isner can put a full tournament together, and escape the logjam of guys not named Federer, Djokovic, Nadal and Murray.
Garber: Well, some people would consider a Rafa win over Djokovic -- in any tournament these days -- a modest upset. I think he's going to end the 0-7 streak. Maybe in Monte Carlo, maybe Rome or perhaps Paris. It wouldn't surprise me to see Isner reach a quarterfinal or semifinal -- rarefied air for an American. I also think we might see a clay title from Ferrer. He came really close last year but lost to Djokovic or Nadal (twice).
Gerstner: The fun of Monte Carlo, which has a deep field, is seeing some of the other players, such as Spaniards Fernando Verdasco and Ferrer, come to a surface where they can do some damage, too. Ferrer, a 2011 finalist who lost to Nadal, is a special treat. Ferrer, who stands 5-7 with the help of a box, is especially dynamic, blazingly fast and creative with his game. Monte Carlo is still considered to be Nadal's office, but players such as Ferrer make the other matches quite entertaining.
Ubha: The days of clay-court specialists reaching the French Open final (Mariano Puerta) or even winning it (Gaston Gaudio) are gone. Nadal, Djokovic and Federer are the major reasons why. But Nicolas Almagro just might find his way to a maiden Grand Slam semifinal. Almagro has been around for a while, yet he's had his best start to a season, and that's sure to give him a further boost as the clay swing begins. It's a similar story for dirt-loving Juan Monaco, who'll be buoyed by reaching the semis in Miami. Don't, though, expect a complete unknown to cause shockwaves.
Wilansky: Making a case for any player outside the usual suspects (all three of them) is a tough sell. Murray? Yeah, he's always in the mix, but so far his results aren't much different since annexing Coach Lendl. Ferrer? Sure, he is clay-court savvy and plays with an unparalleled heart. Almagro, Monaco, Verdasco, Melzer? Eh. Sure, someone could string together an inspired run, but there is simply not enough evidence to suggest anyone could vanquish not one, but more likely two, of the top three dogs.