Five Talking Points Ahead of the Clay Court Season

With the tennis season transitioning from the hard courts to the clay and Roland Garros approaching, here are the five main talking points ahead of the clay court season

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1. Who are the favourites for Roland Garros?

The second Grand Slam of the year is a mouth-watering prospect on both the men’s and women’s side. With Roger Federer once again opting not to play on the clay, Rafael Nadal could be the obvious favourite to win his eleventh Roland Garros title. But the Spaniard has once again had to struggle against injury, and despite impressing in the Davis Cup over the weekend, it’s not entirely clear where his game is at.

Dominic Thiem has reached the semifinals the past two years at the tournament and recorded an impressive straight sets victory over Nadal at the Italian Open last year. It’s easy to forget that Novak Djokovic won in Paris just two years ago such has been his fall from grace. But he has the experience and the quality, if he can just find that winning formula. Wawrinka, who has made two of the past three finals, winning in 2015, could also be a danger, though like so many of his peers at the top of the game, his fitness is far from certain.

On the women’s side, such is the competitiveness of the game at the moment, every tournament is almost impossible to predict. Simona Halep will be determined to finally get over the line in a Grand Slam final having lost all three she has played in so far, including two at Roland Garros. Last year she was stunningly defeated by the teenager, Jelena Ostapenko. Could the Latvian, who has established herself impressively as a top ten regular since, go back-to-back in the French capital?

However, with the likes of Elina Svitolina, twice a quarterfinalist at Roland Garros, and Garbine Muguruza, the 2016 champion, looking to return to form, the path to the title won’t be easy. That’s without even mentioning the next generation of women’s tennis such as players like Daria Kasatkina and Naomi Osaka, who last month contested the Indian Wells final. In short, who will triumph at Roland Garros this year really is anyone’s guess.

2. Can Novak Djokovic return to form?

It would be some understatement to say that Novak Djokovic has endured a disappointing start to the season. The Serb made his return from a six-month injury layoff at the Australian Open, but the wheels came off against the impressive Hyeon Chung in the fourth round at the Australian Open. Elbow surgery and first round defeats in Indian Wells and Miami followed. Djokovic has also parted ways with his coaching team of Andre Agassi and Radek Stepanek. 

A familiar face, Marian Vajda, who coached the Serbian for over a decade and oversaw his greatest successes, was back to help Djokovic at the start of his clay court preparations. Whether or not the partnership will once again be made permanent is unclear, but could going back help the former world #1 move forward? Time will tell, but the clay court season may well be too soon to see a real change in Djokovic’s form. 

It is clear it will take time for Djokovic to get back to the level mentally and physically that he was at when he was dominating the game. But the Serb does have ranking points to defend so will be eager to get some match wins under his belt. He made the semifinals in Madrid last season, losing to eventual champion Rafael Nadal, the final in Rome, losing out to Zverev and made the last eight in Paris, losing to Thiem.

3. Will Wawrinka’s ranking tumble?

Similarly to Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka has also had a difficult start to the season as he continues his comeback from a knee injury that forced him to cut his season short in 2017. After splitting from his coach Magnus Norman, with whom he won his three Grand Slam titles late last year, 2018 has not gone as he would have hoped. At the Australian Open, Wawrinka lost in straight sets to Tennys Sandgren in the second round and frustrating defeats followed in Montpellier and Rotterdam. 

He hasn’t played since, withdrawing from Indian Wells and Miami in order to rest his still recovering knee. But he should have fond memories of the 2017 clay court season. He won his maiden title at his home tournament in Geneva, before making an impressive run at Roland Garros, which included an epic five set semifinal victory over Andy Murray, though he was ultimately outclassed by Nadal in the final.

Unfortunately for Wawrinka, the points he racked up during that successful spell currently account for 91% of his ranking. So far he is confirmed to enter the Masters 1000 events in Monte Carlo, Madrid and Rome. If Wawrinka isn’t able to get back to his best soon, then his ranking will take an almighty fall. Fortunately, Wawrinka often seems to be able to summon unstoppable form from nowhere, so it may not be too long before we see him back at his pulverising best.

4. Will Serena get back to her best?

Although she officially made her comeback from pregnancy in Indian Wells and Miami, Serena Williams is still to get back to her best after a lengthy absence from the sport. The clay court season promises to be fascinating with the women’s game arguably in one of its most competitive and exciting eras. It seems to be almost impossible to predict who will win any tournament, let alone one of the Grand Slams. 

And Serena Williams unseeded presence adds another complication for players such as Simona Halep, who will already be feeling under extreme pressure to finally win the Grand Slam so many believe she deserves. Whilst clay has definitely been Williams’ worst surface, she won Roland Garros as recently as 2015, which was the third time she’d triumphed in Paris. In fact, she’s won more titles at Roland Garros than anyone else currently playing.

Whilst players like Garbine Muguruza have beaten her on the surface and will have the confidence and belief that they can beat her, if Serena plays her best tennis, she could dominate on the clay. She may not be expected to win a Slam after her break from the game, but with little pressure on her shoulders and more pressure on her opponents, well stranger things have happened at Roland Garros.

5. Will the Next Gen breakthrough?

The Miami Open proved to be a successful tournament for the ATP’s Next Gen stars, with players such as Shapovalov, Coric, Tiafoe and Zverev all making it to the second week of the tournament. However, at the Grand Slams, over the best-of-five set format, progress has understandably been difficult for the younger players. But at the Australian Open, two young players reached the semifinals in Hyeon Chung and Kyle Edmund. 

However, Alexander Zverev, the best established of the young crop, has never made it beyond the fourth round of a Grand Slam. Last year he suffered a surprise first round defeat at Roland Garros at the hands of Fernando Verdasco. 2018 has been a mixed bag for Zverev, with disappointing defeats at the Australian Open and Indian Wells. However, in reaching the final in Miami, it looks like the 20-year-old is finally finding the form that led to him winning two Masters 1000 titles last year.

Shapovalov, meanwhile, has a debut clay court season to look forward to, whilst Chung will be looking to carry his good form onto the clay. Coric, who reach the semifinals in Indian Wells and the last eight in Miami, has a game well-suited to the ‘terre battue’ and could be dangerous. With Federer and Murray not playing, and Nadal, Wawrinka and Djokovic struggling, who knows what the Next Gen could achieve?

What are you looking forward to about the clay court season? Let us know in the comments below!

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