The start of the 2015 tennis year has featured three key hard court tournaments: the Australian Open, Indian Wells and the Miami Open. On the women’s side Serena has dominated, winning both in Australia and Miami, while withdrawing from the semi-finals at Indian Wells with a knee injury. On the men’s side, Novak Djokovic has won all three tournaments. In Australia and Miami he tore Andy Murray to pieces and at Indian Wells he defeated Roger Federer. Will Djokovic and Serena rule on clay?
The surface now changes to clay, with key tournaments including Monte-Carlo, Madrid, and the Italian Open, all of which lead up to Roland Garros—the only Grand Slam event on clay. In years gone by it would have been a sure thing to put Rafa Nadal in the winner’s circle for every clay court tournament. However, 2015 has seen Rafa struggling.
It isn’t his form with which he is struggling, but it is his confidence that appears to be the issue. On watching him lose to Milos Raonic at Indian Wells, although he played a solid match, he was outplayed by Raonic on the big points. Big points used to be Rafa’s forte. Both Nadal and his coach, Uncle Toni, have admitted that he is feeling the pressure when he is playing the critical points, and both are hoping that a return to clay is just what the doctor ordered.
The “King of Clay,” as he is often referred to, is looking for an extraordinary tenth title at Roland Garros. The player standing in his way is Novak Djokovic, who is playing some of the best tennis of his career. Although Roger Federer and Andy Murray will probably hang around at most of the clay tournaments until at least the quarters or semis, Djokovic will be Nadal’s real challenger. However, with Nadal’s current ranking of number five in the world how he is seeded in the draw could be critical. If seedings are consistent with rankings he could face a top four player before the semi-finals.
Of the up-and-comers on the ATP tour Milos Raonic could have a good clay season. A semi-finalist in Rome last year and a quarter-finalist at Roland Garros, Raonic is starting to show that his game consists of more than just his big serve. Milos’ ground strokes have become much more consistent but he will have to be very disciplined with his shot selection if he hopes to do well in five set matches.
The clay courts are where the European players usually perform well so there could be some breakthrough matches for young players like Borna Coric of Croatia and Alexander Zverev of Germany. Another player to keep an eye on during the clay season is Roberto Bautista Agut of Spain, who is sitting at a career high ranking of 15.
Last year at the French Open, Serena Williams was stunned by the young Spaniard, Garbine Muguruza, in the second round. Maria Sharapova took full advantage of the open draw, and the “cow on ice”, as she referred to her movement on clay, held the trophy on the final day.
This year, Serena has been dominant. Players including Madison Keys and Simona Halep have given her challenging matches but she has refused to lose. The steady play of both Sara Errani of Italy and Carla Suarez Navarro of Spain should see them do well on the clay and both could end up inside the top ten after Roland Garros. But as Serena’s crushing of Suarez Navarro in the Miami final clearly showed these players do not have any weapons that can hurt her.
Lucie Safarova and Karolina Pliskova, both of the Czech Republic, have started the year strongly. Safarova has the benefit of the lefty serve, but Pliskova appears to have more all-round power in her game. Expect both of these players to do well on the clay. Simona Halep, playing in her first grand slam final, fell to Maria Sharapova in last year’s Roland Garros final, but a more experienced Halep this time around might have what it takes to go all the way. The Serena vs Maria rivalry is not really much of a rivalry as Serena has not lost to the Russian in eleven years, and her dominance was on display again when she won in Australia this year.
The only way Serena can be upset in this final is if on a cold and damp day, someone plays the match of her life—possibly her sister Venus—and Serena’s power game and devastating serves lose some pace and she loses a bit of confidence, neither of which are likely.