Can anyone knock Rafael Nadal off his clay-court perch this year?
As the clay-court season gets underway this week, we look at the men who are hoping to end Rafael Nadal’s stranglehold on the major titles on the red dirt.
The 17-time Grand Slam winner traditionally plays four Roland-Garros warm-up events and more often than not he ends up winning three of them, giving his rivals a glimmer of hope ahead of the French Open.
However, by the time we have hit the second week at Roland-Garros that glimmer of hope starts to fade and before we know it the Spaniard has romped to yet another trophy on Court Philippe Chatrier.
In case you don’t know, here are Nadal’s major honours on the red dirt.
2005–2008, 2010–2014, 2017–2018
Monte-Carlo Masters (11)
Barcelona Open (11)
2005-2009, 2011-2013, 2016-2018
Italian Open (8)
2005-2007, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2018
Madrid Open (5)
2005, 2010, 2013, 2014, 2017
It will take a brave soul to predict Nadal won’t win anything on clay this year even though his body continues to give him problems, but there are still a few pretenders who are looking to deny him glory on the red dirt.
As usual, the Monte-Carlo Masters (April 15) is when the clay season gets interesting and it is followed by the Barcelona Open (April 22), Madrid Open (May 6), Italian Open (May 13) and culminates in Roland-Garros (May 27).
Novak Djokovic is his biggest threat and the Serb will be upbeat after his emphatic win over Nadal in the Australian Open final at the start of the year.
Team Djokovic have made it clear they are after a Career Grand Slam and he needs to win Roland-Garros to keep those hopes alive, but more importantly if he wins the French Open he will once again hold all four majors at the same time.
Then there is Dominic Thiem.
The Austrian failed to give Nadal a match during the 2018 Roland-Garros final, but he went toe-to-toe with the Spaniard at the US Open where they slugged it out for five sets before the King of Clay prevailed.
Many believe he is the pretender to the clay throne as also finished runner-up to Alexander Zverev at the 2018 Madrid Open, having beaten Nadal on the way to the final.
Alexander Zverev was the man expected to challenge for majors this year, but he has made a dreadful start to the 2019 season. He reached back-to-back clay court finals last year as he won the Madrid Open and was beaten in the Italian Open final by Nadal, but chances of him replicating that success seem low.
Then there are the two Swiss veterans in Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka.
One is making his return to clay after a hiatus and the other is still struggling to regain his best form after a long injury absence last year.
The world of tennis would love another fairytale and see either of the Swiss giants give Nadal a good run for his money on the clay, but sadly you just can’t see a 37-year-old Federer slugging it out with the young guns on the red dirt in the earlier rounds and then see off the might of Nadal in the latter stages.
It means Djokovic looks like the only realistic candidate who can knock Nadal off his perch. He dealt a serious blow to the Spaniard’s confidence with the demolition job in the Melbourne final and a win over the Spaniard in one of the earlier tournaments could set him up nicely for the rest of the clay-court season.
If not Djokovic then we might just see another Nadal clean sweep of the major honours on clay this year.
More from Tennis365:
Tennis Top 10
WTA top 10 prize-money earners in 2020: Sofia Kenin at No 1 as Serena Williams and Ashleigh Barty miss out
Your WTA top 10 prize-money earners in 2020.
The ATP Finals in London from 2009-2020 by numbers: 850 million viewers, $78.8m in prize money
Impressive figures from the ATP Finals at The O2 Arena.
Juan Martin del Potro eyes Olympics, but says ‘I will continue to lie to myself’ if dream doesn’t materialise
Juan Martin del Potro dreaming of the Olympics.
On This Day in 2015: Andy Murray inspires Great Britain to Davis Cup victory
Great Britain had not won the Davis Cup since 1936.
Recalling how Britain won the 2015 Davis Cup final amid a backdrop of terror
Kevin Palmer recalls the dramatic 2015 Davis Cup final.
EXCLUSIVE – On the fifth anniversary of Britain’s Davis Cup win, captain Leon Smith reflects on glorious year
On this day five years ago, Britain won the Davis Cup.
Novak Djokovic ‘met the goal he set out at the beginning of the season’, says his coach
A good season for Novak Djokovic.
Tennis Top 10
ATP top 10 prize-money earners in 2020: Novak Djokovic at No 1 with two surprise names on the list
Novak Djokovic sitting pretty at No 1.
WTA to adopt ATP-style categories with events changed to WTA Masters, WTA 500, WTA 250?
Changes in line for WTA categories, according to a report.
Dominic Thiem hopes to emulate his coach and experience ‘incredible’ medal winning emotions at Olympics
Dominic Thiem sets sights on Tokyo Olympics.