Any challenge for the Spaniard on clay this year would have to come through Djokovic, Thiem or Zverev
The ATP 1000 Monte Carlo begins this week to formally open up the clay court season. It’s the first of three ATP 1000 events on clay - along with Madrid and Rome- following which Roland Garros will be played.
This part of the year has seen a single man dominate the ATP tour for a decade and a half now. World No 2, Rafael Nadal, who is defending four titles on clay this year - Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Rome and Roland Garros - will look to dominate another clay court swing as he has done almost every year since 2005.
During this time, Nadal has mustered 11 titles each at Roland Garros, Monte Carlo and Barcelona. He has won another eight at Rome and five at the Madrid Masters which only switched from indoor hard to clay in 2010.
Nadal’s win percentage on clay is a staggering 92.02% (415-36). What is perhaps the most astounding stat of them all in tennis, perhaps even in all of sports, is the fact that the Spaniard has only ever lost two best of five matches on clay in a career spanning almost two decades.
Many believe Rafael Nadal on clay to be the ultimate test in all of sports - there’s almost universal consensus that that is indeed the case in tennis. However, as unparalleled and unprecedented as his growing sets of records on the surface have been, it all has to come to an end one day.
That’s what we all thought had happened in 2015, when Nadal didn’t win any title on clay and was knocked out of the French Open quarterfinals by Novak Djokovic. In 2016, Nadal began the clay season with triumphs at Monte Carlo and Barcelona, but couldn’t win in Madrid or Rome, then withdrew from the third round of Roland Garros with injury.
Two successive years without the French Open title, after he had won nine of the previous 10 meant that Nadal’s invincibility on clay was considered a thing of the past. And then in the last two years, the Spaniard replicated precisely what he had done between 2005 and 2015.
In both 2017 and 2018, Nadal won Roland Garros, Monte Carlo, Barcelona and one out of Madrid and Rome. A major, two ATP 1000 titles, and one ATP 500 title is his best - and most frequent - tally for him on the clay court swing, barring the 2010 season when he completed the clay slam: winning Roland Garros in addition to all of the three ATP 1000 events on the surface.
Therefore, as the 2019 clay court season begins, the question is if Nadal can replicate his usual dominance on the surface as he eyes his 12th crowns at Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Roland Garros, along with the Rome and Madrid Masters.
The answer to that question perhaps lies in the fact that this season he faces what he hasn’t faced since the 2015-16 blip on clay: a Djokovic at his best.
The World No 1 traversed a well-advertised blip between winning Roland Garros in 2016 till Wimbledon 2018, where he didn’t win a major for two years. He has won all of the three played since. And that means that he has the opportunity to repeat his own unique feat of holding all four majors at the same time, if he wins the French Open this year.
What Djokovic also has over Nadal - as things stand - is the mental edge, given that he has beaten the Spaniard en route to two of the three latest major triumphs: the Wimbledon semifinal and the Australian Open final.
The five-set epic at SW19 was arguably what turned things around for Djokovic, culminating in the straight sets mauling in Melbourne earlier this year. However, the World No 1 has done little of note since winning the Australian Open almost three months ago.
As discussed in this space last week, Roger Federer, fresh from his Miami Open win, will also take part in at least two clay court events this year: Madrid and Roland Garros. And even though he won’t be the favourite on the surface, his presence of course adds another dimension to the draws at the biggest events.
Over the past two seasons the two players who have challenged Nadal on clay have been Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev. Thiem is the only player to have beaten Nadal on clay over the past two seasons, getting the better of the Spaniard at Rome 2017 and then Madrid last year. The Austrian is considered by many as the heir apparent to Nadal, even if it might be impossible to replicate the Spanish maestro’s achievements in their entirety.
While Thiem might have got the better of Nadal in the last two seasons, on both occasions it was Zverev who actually won the title - Rome 2017 and Madrid 2018. The German gave a scare to Nadal in the final of the Madrid Masters last year as well. He’s also by far the most successful of the Next Gen challengers to the Big Three, even if his performances at the majors haven’t been noteworthy.
Any challenge for Nadal on clay this year would have to come through Djokovic, Thiem or Zverev. Thiem just won his first ATP 1000 event last month beating Federer at Indian Wells. That might be the catalyst to push him to greater things on his preferred surface.
Meanwhile, Djokovic can complete his usurpation of the tour, if he wins the French this season. Zverev, who hasn’t done anything of note this year, is perhaps the worst placed out of the three to challenge Nadal - but that’s precisely the position he enjoys being in.
An on song Nadal will be the favourite to overcome these challenges. But at 32, how much will his body allow him to do on the most grueling surface of them all? The greatest hint toward what lies in store over the next couple of months will be witnessed this week at Monte Carlo.