The clay court tennis season has taken off from the sluggish first gear, if there ever exists one on clay. The serious business has already begun with the first two rounds of the Monte Carlo Masters tournament over.
This past week, a sport within a sport began: clay-court tennis. What is arguably tennis’ toughest season tipped off around the world with events in Houston and Valencia, Spain.
Clay surfaces offer totally different challenges than the hard-court tennis that dominates the early part of the ATP Tour calendar. Clay-court tennis hinges on movement, strategy and defense. Sliding effectively on clay is an art unto itself. It combines the artistic flare of ice skating with the athletic grace of a ballerina.
The season ends with the French Open, a prize most clay court gladiators of Europe consider the ultimate prize in tennis. Clay courts provide gruelling battles. You cannot win games on serves and volleys. The ball slows down considerably once it hits the surface. So you have to defeat the opponent despite the surface. At Wimbledon, you would have to grass on surface aid you with bounce and pace after bouncing. On hard courts, you do not have the support of the surface. However, it doesn’t make you toil much more like clay does.
Clay provides the raw battle of man versus man as nothing else does in tennis. Clay court specialists thrive in such conditions. They can run forever, hit deep shots forever, and come back at you forever. It doesn’t matter if the match has gone for over four hours. Hell, some matches have even gone on for over five! There have always been clay court specialists in the game. However, the specialist field is getting thinner with the ATP points system requiring players a minimum matches on each surface the way it is structured now. There still exist players like Coria and Ferrero though.
Nadal was the King last year. He is still at a 38-0 winning streak on clay – a stat that says much about his dominance on clay than any amount of words can. Federer sniffed at Nadal last year though. He was almost there but not good enough in the final last year at Roland Garros. Had Federer won then, we could have possibly looked a wee bit differently at the clay season last year. After all, Federer too had a superb clay court season.
Do not mistake Federer’s grass court success as a reason to discount his clay court ability. Born and brought up in Basel, Switzerland, Federer is as comfortable on clay as he is on any other surface. The man strives for perfection and success and knows how to achieve it. So expect him to come back strongly this year. Or at least make a strong battle out of it and come bloody close.
What about the rest of the field? The people remaining in Round 3 at Monte Carlo would give a good idea of the people who can have a good clay court season. The 16 players include, apart from Federer and Nadal, Coria: Juan Carlos Ferrero (on a come back of sorts and can do a lot of close to his best), Ivan Ljubicic, Fernando Gonzalez, Gaston Gaudio, Tony Robredo, David Nalbandian, and Nicolas Keifer (check out the tournament draw. I am not going to bore you by going into the past achievements of the given players.
From the field, I will be closely watching as to how Ferrero shapes up. “The Mosquito” — as he is widely known — has played some of the best clay court tennis I have seen. Ferrero, though, has been a pathetic shadow of his former self in the recent seasons. Can he play at the same level once more? David Nalbandian is another player who can defeat the best on his day. Would he up the notch this season? Or would it be some one no one expects? Like Chang or Gustavo Kuerten maybe?
The field is wider than ever before. Who will dominate the clay court season? Who will come out triumphant in Paris? Your guess is as good as mine. The next few days will give us a fairly good idea though. The last four rounds of the Monte Carlo Masters will see some serious battles which could tell us how things will shape up this season. The promise of some classic tennis looms large.