Brick by brick: Can Nadal fend off new guard as clay swing looms?

April 9, 2023

The Big 3, and especially Nadal, raised the stakes of the clay season over the last two decades.Can we get one more epic run-up to Roland Garros in 2023?

Brick by brick: Can Nadal fend off new guard as clay swing looms?

We’re about to see the most photogenic sight of the tennis season: The famous bird’s-eye view of the Monte Carlo Country Club’s red clay, framed by the blue sweep of the Mediterranean behind it, which starts popping up on our social media feeds every April.

For tennis fans, it’s a reassuring sign that spring has arrived again. But the photo also signals that the most intense two months of the men’s schedule is about to begin. Every year since 2005, from mid-April to mid-June, Rafael Nadal and one of his Big 3 rivals-first Roger Federer, then Novak Djokovic-have dueled their way across Europe in the run-up to Roland Garros.

During this span, everything about the pro game is elevated. The matches on clay are more physical and more artistic than they are on other surfaces. The week-to-week chatter and speculation-who’s up, who’s down, who’s ready for Paris, who’s looking shaky-creates the type of din that we normally only hear in team sports when the playoffs begin. Because every match is linked so closely with a Grand Slam event, every match takes on greater meaning.

It wasn’t always this way, especially for American fans. Before the advent of the Tennis Channel and the streaming universe, the season basically went into hiding in the spring. We were lucky if we saw the final-sometimes cut, usually tape-delayed-from Monte Carlo or Rome or Hamburg. Mid-week matches, forget it. I can remember tuning into early-round, side-court Monte Carlo matches on Tennis Channel for the first time in 2003 or 2004 and thinking, “Is this actually happening?”

The bigger change, though, came two years later, when an 18-year-old Nadal began his first march across Europe. That year, Rafa beat Guillermo Coria in two excellent best-of-five-set finals in Monte Carlo and Rome, before knocking off Federer in an ultra-hyped semifinal at Roland Garros.

The next year, the heightened sense of anticipation was sustained through the whole clay season, as Rafa edged Roger in the Monte Carlo and Rome finals, and again for the French Open title. This was the real start of the Federer-Nadal rivalry. It also brought the clay swing to centrestage, in a way it hadn’t been since the heyday of Bjorn Borg, Guillermo Vilas, and Adriano Panatta in the 1970s.

By the following spring, another teenager, Djokovic, had crashed that party. Gradually, over the course of the next five years, he would take Federer’s place as Nadal’s chief clay-court rival. Some of the very best matches of their long-running clash have come during this time of year: Nadal’s four-hour win in the 2009 Madrid semifinals, and Djokovic’s unreally brilliant two-set win over Rafa in the 2016 Rome quarterfinals stand out in my mind, among many others.

At first, the stakes were raised by two annual questions: (1) Could Nadal maintain his clay dominance yet again? (2) Would Federer and Djokovic ever win the French Open? Federer got his in 2009, and Djokovic did the same in 2016 and 2021. More recently, the stakes have been raised by the GOAT race. Roland Garros is always Nadal’s best chance of staying level with Djokovic.

Over the past two years, that dynamic finally began to change, as two new names inserted themselves into the Paris contender conversation.

In 2021, Stefanos Tsitsipas won Monte Carlo and reached the French Open final. In 2022, Carlos Alcaraz beat Nadal and Djokovic back to back in Madrid. At the same time, Djokovic stole a victory on Nadal’s home turf at Roland Garros in 2021, before Rafa righted the ship again last June, despite not winning any of the warm-up events.

Which brings us to 2023.

So far much has remained the same. Djokovic held serve by winning the Australian Open and tying Nadal with 22 major titles. Alcaraz looked as incandescent as ever in Indian Wells and Miami, though he picked up an injury and will miss Monte Carlo. Nadal is hurt again; this time it’s his hip. He has also pulled out of Monte Carlo.

That could leave room for Tsitsipas, the two-time defending champion in Monaco, to put his name back in the conversation, though he has also been carrying a shoulder injury. Throw in Djokovic’s recent penchant for losing early in Monte Carlo, and Daniil Medvedev’s love-hate relationship with dirt, and it could be a few weeks before this year’s clay season comes into focus.

Whether it ultimately does may depend on the man who made spring tennis what it is today. Can Nadal, who will turn 37 in two months, rise from the ashes of injury again? If he does, will it be the final time? If he doesn’t, can a Djokovic-Alcaraz-Tsitsipas trivalry produce the same sustained intensity from April to June that we’ve taken for granted since 2006?

As far as that last question goes, I think the answer is yes. Even when Nadal goes, the clay season won’t suddenly become irrelevant. Djokovic’s Slam quest, Alcaraz’s energy, the potential for showdowns between Alcaraz, Tsitsipas, Medvedev, Jannik Sinner, Casper Ruud, Holger Rune, Frances Tiafoe, Alexander Zverev, Félix Auger Aliassime-and maybe even Nick Kyrgios-will keep us watching. Alcaraz-Sinner in particular seems destined to be a French Open final someday.

This is the season that Rafa built. By dominating clay and Roland Garros so thoroughly, he hasn’t made them boring. Instead, he’s raised both of them in significance.

We should enjoy what he brings to spring for as long as it lasts, and know that the surface and the season will live on without him. –

Brick by brick: Can Nadal fend off new guard as clay swing looms?