As we head into spring, seasons change and so do surfaces. After we said farewell to hard courts in North America, we’ve finally transitioned over to the red clay courts in Europe for good — and it’s time for the TTI gang to return and have a look at both tours. Prior to the start of this week’s Monte Carlo Rolex Masters, the TTI squad (minus one) reconvened in the lair to examine the state of the #men on the terre battue — and five days in, are probably already laughably wrong.
Of the ATP, who is/will:
1) Who will slide down the rankings?
While Rafael Nadal isn’t defending much compared to years past, he’s still not playing up to his ranking or well enough for me to predict him to do anything too significant — and I do think he will drop a bit during the clay swing. Making the semifinals at Indian Wells — and giving Novak Djokovic a real test for one set — was his most impressive result in a good chunk of time, but let’s not forget that if Alexander Zverev puts away a volley on match point in the round-of-16, that result never comes. I’m not ready to say Nadal is “done” at all, and it wouldn’t completely shock me if he put together one great week and won, say, Barcelona. However, I would be more surprised if he’s is ranked higher at the end of Roland Garros than the alternative.
Tomas Berdych has had an underwhelming start to 2016. After an early period of strong results in 2015 — including *finally* defeating Rafael Nadal at the Australian Open — the Czech made his first Masters 1000 final in nearly three years at Monte Carlo, and followed up with deep runs throughout the rest of the European clay swing. This year? He’s failed to defend his points at all the season’s major events and his form hasn’t looked promising. In putting lackluster efforts against his typical rivals (Djokovic, Roger Federer) and losing to up-and-coming ones (Milos Raonic), Berdych’s game seems to have plateaued just short of great success. If he follows his 2016 trend and is unable to defend his points from Rome and Madrid — having already been stunned by Damir Dzumhur in Monte Carlo — we might just see the 30-year-old Czech fall out of the Top 10 for the first time in five years.
I can’t help but go with David Ferrer on this one. There are a couple of players ranked right behind him who don’t have to defend all that much (Raonic, David Goffin and Dominic Thiem) but are primed to grab some big points in the next few weeks. Considering the Spaniard’s health and injury issues this year, it feels like this might be the time when Ferrer could just about slide out of the Top10 for the first time in many many years — and who knows, it might just happen before we get to Paris unless the 34-year-old manages to shift gears and get healthy soon.
2) Who’ll make their mark? (No Hawkeye necessary.)
I feel stupid for trying to predict *anything* Gael Monfils will do, but this year has felt a little different than usual. He seems more focused match-in and match-out, and has reached the quarterfinals or better in all but one event he’s played in 2016. Maybe La Monf has tricked us all (again) into thinking he’s finally put it all together only to let us down (again), but if not, I could see him making bigger noise than ever throughout the clay season — and especially in Paris. (And who wouldn’t want to see that play out?)
Rafael Nadal didn’t win the French Open last year, and I don’t think he’s going to win it this year, but I’m picking him to pick up a Masters 1000 event on clay. In years past, such a prediction would have been a mild one for Nadal, who is usually dominant from start to finish on clay. While Novak Djokovic is the best player on this planet (and others) right now, but as we saw in Indian Wells, the King of Clay can still give Novak a run for his money — at least for a set.
This one is a tough for me because I feel like we won’t see a lot of things out of the ordinary, but I’m actually fairly confident a rested Roger Federer could do some damage on clay this year.
I know some will find my choice preposterous but in recent years, Federer’s been a decent Top 10 player on clay – but never much more than that. Since 2012, he hasn’t really put a fantastic clay season together and his only title came in Istanbul last year. While Federer will head into his “weakest” part of the season without a lot of match play, he’s also well rested — unlike several of the other players at this point in the season.
3) Who’ll make a clay breakthrough?
Clay isn’t Milos Raonic’s best surface, but he’s hardly below par on it. The big-serving Canadian followed up his fantastic start to the year with a final in Indian Wells and a quarterfinal in Miami — good enough to keep him as the second-best player of 2016 to date in my book. I’m not saying by any means that I think Raonic will win Roland Garros, or even a Masters 1000, but I do think he has a great chance to “break through” and solidify himself near the top with some positive results. And hey, it doesn’t hurt that he’s defending very little — a quarterfinal at Monte Carlo and Madrid, zero elsewhere — because of injury in 2015.
Dominic Thiem has started the season off 25-6, which includes titles in Buenos Aires and Acapulco. In 2015, Thiem won three titles on clay and has proven himself to be a formidable entity on the red dirt. Now that the clay season of Thiem’s best season has rolled around, it’s time for the kid to get to work — which I believe he will. He’ll likely have a third round encounter with Rafael Nadal in Monte Carlo, which should be a titanic clash. We’ve been waiting for a young gun to forge his way to the top of the game — Dimitrov, Raonic and Nishikori have gotten close, but can Thiem do what they haven’t and win a Masters 1000 title and/or a Grand Slam?
David Goffin probably had the most surprising month of March of anyone on the ATP, making the semifinals at both Indian Wells AND Miami. After nearly a year of fluttering around the Top 20 and winning small events here and there, the diminutive Belgian seemed doomed to be a constant bridesmaid to the bigger players and more prone to being upset against bigger returners. After coming through in a third set tiebreak against American wildcard Francis Tiafoe in his opening match of Indian Wells, he eventually (and finally) overturned his dismal record against the Top 10 and has been on a tear since. All that behind him, clay is his favorite surface. With not much to defend at the big events and having next to a home court advantage at the French Open, he’s primed to gain a few ranking points and show just how far he’s come along in 2016.
4) The biggest question mark?
We all know how good Kei Nishikori can be, and we know how capable he is on clay. If not for a mid-match injury, he would likely have the 2014 Madrid title to his name. Nishikori is such a question mark because we’ve seen the other side of the coin, too. I like what I’ve seen from him so far in 2016 — he fought through several tough ones in both Indian Wells and Miami — but his place in the game seems to have stagnated somewhat in the last two years. It’s hard to tell if this is how things are going to stay or if there’s a switch-up (in either direction) coming soon. Will “Klei” Nishikori come out to play and win a title or two? Possibly. Will something — injury, illness, curse from the Draw Gods — befall him and cause an uneventful couple of months? Perhaps. You just never know with Nishikori, which is why he’s my biggest question mark.
Every year I ask myself, “Will this be the last season for David Ferrer?” Of course the answer has been no, but this season my doubts are growing. Ferrer has already lost seven matches this year and was dealt a brutal loss in Miami to young Frenchman Lucas Pouille, and he most recently pulled out of Monte Carlo with a calf injury. It will be very interesting to see how Ferrer does moving forward.
Roger Federer is coming back from an injury layoff for the first time in his career. Sure, he’s had back issues and a bout of mono in the past – but his recent knee surgery is his first time under the knife in his fabled career; a man still going for firsts at nearly 35 years old. But even in spite of his surgery, we were always going to be left wondering what Federer’s clay court campaign was going to look like. He had initially scheduled only one tournament on the surface Roland Garros but now he’s playing a few more – Monte Carlo this week, for example. Clay has typically rewarded stamina and grittiness, neither things which have critically characterized the Swiss’ later career style (SABR, anyone?). However, his attacking game still has the bite to keep him in contention for any tournament he plays and he was the only player to beat the seemingly invincible Novak Djokovic last year more than once. Federer’s backhand held up well in his first round match, but dropped serve to love while serving it out the first time, ultimately begging the question of whether or not rustiness will be a factor when it comes to playing his top rivals on clay.
Stan Wawrinka 2014: Wins Monte Carlo, ok in-between, flops at the French Open.
Stan Wawrinka 2015: Flops at Monte Carlo, ok in-between, wins the French Open.
You can see where I’m going, right? Wawrinka is always someone I’m keeping an eye out for in draws, mainly cause he could have one of those weeks where he tears through the entire field and because he could just tumble out in the first round, spraying errors. I’m expecting no different from “Stan The Man” this clay season – he will probably make a big final, he will probably fall shockingly early, too. Just when, where and against whom? Nobody knows. It’s just how Stan rolls — but in all honesty, I have a lot of questions with regards to several people and I’m curious to see the answers spell out on the red dirt.
Stay tuned for our WTA picks as the ladies get ready to hit the dirt in Stuttgart!