Can anyone knock Rafael Nadal off his clay-court perch this year?

Tennis Features
Rafael Nadal French Open

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.
Rafael Nadal Monte-Carlo Masters trophy

Roland-Garros (11)
2005–2008, 2010–2014, 2017–2018

Monte-Carlo Masters (11)
2005-2012, 2016-2018

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.
Roger Federer shadow

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.

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