It was one thing for World #1 Novak Djokovic to go down, but then for Rafael Nadal to crash out as well– at a tournament he’s won 11 times– the whole thing raises the obvious question of wear-and-tear. Are the GOATS’ beards getting grey? Is the brutality of red clay and the long, if glamorous slog toward Roland Garros something that needs to be more carefully managed for an ageing body? GOAT 1, Roger Federer, didn’t even play Monte Carlo.
Djokovic indicated he’s just warming up. No worries, nothing to see here.
Nadal also seemed to say early exits after an injury break aren’t such a big deal.
But momentum can be a funny thing in tennis. Protect your body too much, and you manage yourself right out of match-shape. If you choose not to play too much tennis, the outcome might not end up being what you’d hoped.
The GOAT picture is suddenly fuzzy. So who’s most likely to storm through the European clay season and peak just in time for Roland Garros? A look at the contenders (mostly) aged 21 and under:
- Alexander Zverev. Age: 22. The current world #3 has suffered some early losses, but one was to eventual Monte Carlo Champ Fabio Fognini. No shame there. He lost in Miami to David Ferrer, who’s on his farewell tour and was fighting for every last ball with the crowd very much on his side. Not too bad. Keep in mind that Zverev tore through the clay run-ups last year, winning in Madrid and finishing as runner-up in Rome. He’s got the goods. Red Clay Peak-O-Meter: Neutral Chill.
- Stefanos Tsitsipas. Age: 20. This guy’s fun to watch and has had some impressive results on the dirt in the past, most notably reaching the final in Barcelona. But his one-handed backhand could be a liability on clay. He’d better use the slice and take it early on the dirt. Recent losses to Daniil Medvedev and Denis Shapovalov– both beneath him in the rankings — indicate that the Greek is still finding his footing. Red Clay Peak-O-Meter: Downward Dog.
- Denis Shapovalov. Age: 20. Not all one-handed backhands are created alike. Shapo really attacks his. On a good day, the ball is taken on the rise, and the results are devastating for his opponent. On a bad day, his timing is off and the errors flow. But there is no doubting that the Canadian is more comfortable on hard courts. Couple that with some coaching changes that he may still be adjusting to, and a big clay-season run for Shapo seems like a longshot. Red Clay Peak-O-Meter: Downward Dog.
- Alex de Minaur. Age: 20. This scrappy up-and-comer has barely played recently. He has little experience on clay, and he pulled out of Barcelona with a groin issue. In top form, maybe. But this doesn’t seem to be his year. Red Clay Peak-O-Meter: Downward Dog.
- Frances Tiafoe. Age: 21. Tiafoe has not played well outside of two great runs to the quarters in Australia and Miami. He is a consummate hard-court American. He also has a rather unconventional forehand. You’d think ‘no’ on clay. But here’s what he’s got going for him: Health. Great, stable coaching. He also put together a decent clay court season in 2018. Watch out for this guy. Red Clay Peak-O-Meter: Neutral Chill.
- Felix Auger-Aliassime. Age: 18. Everyone’s favorite infectious wonderkid. A star-in-the-making suddenly inside the Top 35– but that’s by virtue of wins on hard courts. Look at his record on clay in Challengers last year– nothing amazing. You certainly don’t expect an 18-year-old making his first run through the ATP clay courts to dominate. The odds are against him. Look out during the hard courts later this year, though! Red Clay Peak-O-Meter: Downward Dog.
So who among the Next-Gen Under 21 set is poised to make a run on clay and peak just in time for Paris? None of them.
Look for the 3 GOATs: Federer, Nadal and Djokovic (Listed in order of Grand Slams won, by the way, not necessarily my opinion) to have a better shot of peaking come Slam-time. Or perhaps one of the more established dirtballers — someone who has experience on red clay but also has the legs. Look for players like Borna Coric or Marco Cecchinato to make a mark in in the dirt during this wide open clay season.