The clay-court season is almost in full swing on both tennis tours. The stretch of calendar from now until the end of the French Open at Roland Garros on June 10 is the most grueling the sport has to offer. Playing on clay lessens power a bit while forcing players to grind, build points and play long rallies. Some players thrive while others disappear until the grass-court season. This year will be no different.
With 54 career clay-court titles to his name, Rafael Nadal is the undisputed “King of Clay.” However, prior to this past week in Monte Carlo, Nadal had not played an official tournament since retiring from January’s Australian Open with a hip injury. His knees are also a never-ending concern.
Roger Federer is skipping this part of the season for a second straight year. These injury concerns combined with Federer’s absence had to give the rest of the field more hope than usual as they headed to the clay.
Nadal squashed those feelings like a bug. He raced through the field. He did not drop more than four games in a set on his way to his 11th career Monte Carlo Masters title and retained his No. 1 world ranking.
The return to form of Japanese star Kei Nishikori was also a big story in Monte Carlo. The former US Open finalist came in unseeded after spending much of last year dealing with a slew of injuries. He fell to Nadal in the final, but defeated three seeded players to get there, including two in the top five.
Clay is not a surface Nishikori is great on, but he is far from terrible on it. He really seemed to turn a corner at this event. His movement on any surface is a great asset. For the first time in a long time, there is reason to be optimistic about his chances to get back near the top of the game.
Novak Djokovic also returned to the tour in Monte Carlo. He retooled his coaching team yet again after a disastrous spring swing in the US. For a 12-time major champion, losing in the round of 16 at any event is never going to be good enough, but he picked up his first match wins since January and reported that his elbow was pain free for the first time in two years.
Nadal emphatically staking claim to his clay turf again was the big take away from Monte Carlo, but a healthy Djokovic is one of few things that could trouble him throughout the clay season should they meet.
The first key stop on the road to Roland Garros for the women begins Monday at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart, Germany. With only a 28-player singles field and eight of the top 10 players in the world in the draw, some first-round matches could pass for finals.
Two-time major champs Petra Kvitova and Angelique Kerber will battle as will Americans Sloane Stephens and CoCo Vandeweghe. There is also sixth-seeded Caroline Garcia taking on wild card and three-time event winner Maria Sharapova.
Each matchup has its own story. Kerber and Kvitova have both played pretty well this year. Neither is particularly comfortable on clay, but there is opportunity in the ladies game this clay-court season. A quality win could set the tone for the next two months for either Kerber or Kvitova.
Sharapova and Garcia is a battle of two players who desperately need something good to happen to kickstart their years. Garcia is just 10-8 on the year. Stuttgart marks the one-year mark for Sharapova in her return from suspension. Her ranking is still stuck in the 40s.
She returns to an event that has been very good to her over the years. Sharapova is also reunited with former coach Thomas Högstedt. The Swede helped Sharapova win the 2012 French Open and Olympic silver medal. Sharapova has never lost to Garcia in four career meetings, but this is a winnable match for both. Whoever loses it will continue a downward spiral. The longer those go on, the harder they are to get out of.
Stephens and Vandeweghe were teammates on the American national team this past weekend in France. That dynamic will change in a hurry. Stephens just won the big event in Miami over Easter weekend. Vandeweghe is a two-time major semifinalist, but has won just one official tour-level match all year. Still, her power against the speed of Stephens should make for an entertaining match.
Featured image from guardian.nu
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