With the clay season still its infancy, or perhaps not even born, we discuss ten questions about this next segment of the season. Answers appear at the end of our analysis, but those who plunge to the bottom instantly will miss the best part.
1. Will a certain lefty regain his stranglehold over the clay?
No matter how many laurels he wins elsewhere, Nadal always shines most brightly and stays most calm on the surface where he has dominated at a historic level. And, no matter how jaded or disillusioned he sounds beforehand, the clay almost always reawakens his appetite for competition. Entrenched in his familiar comfort zone behind the baseline, Nadal savaged virtually all of his rivals there when healthy—until last year. Although he earned yet another Roland Garros crown, his aura of invincibility on clay diminished when he lost finals at the surface’s two most significant non-majors to the same player. No other rival could threaten him throughout this segment of the season in 2011, and no new upstart looks likely to arise in 2012. As it has for the last thirteen months, the Spaniard’s challenge consists of one player, whom he nearly defeated in their only meeting this year but to whom he has lost three straight major finals (and seven straight finals overall).
2. Will another lefty pull herself together?
Just six points from the Australian Open final, Kvitova unraveled in a manner unexpected from a woman who had shown such poise during her breakthrough 2011. Hampered by illness since that loss, the Wimbledon champion wallowed through early setbacks in Indian Wells and Miami, which she left vowing to improve her fitness. Before she won at the All England Club last year, Kvitova triumphed at the Premier Mandatory tournament in Madrid and came closer than anyone to defeating eventual champion Li Na in Roland Garros. If she has not recovered her strength or her rhythm, the clay season will expose the abrupt lurches in form that have characterized her play this year. On the other hand, her devastating strokes can penetrate this surface more effectively than those of rivals like Azarenka and Radwanska. With the rest of the top four threatening to eclipse her, Kvitova needs to reaffirm herself during the clay season before mounting a Wimbledon title defense.
3. Will Novak complete a boxed set?
Not since Rod Laver has any man held all four major titles simultaneously, the feat that Djokovic will seek to accomplish at Roland Garros. The pressure that will build as he advances further into the fortnight would cripple an ordinary mortal, but the Serb has shown himself no ordinary mortal in his record-breaking 2011 and his staggering start to 2012. Forced to play for nearly 11 hours in his last two Melbourne matches, he rose to the occasion with a courage worthy of a true #1 to defeat two top-five opponents. While Djokovic owns a massive psychological edge over Nadal, he may face his most severe test from Federer, who inflicted his only significant defeat since the start of last year. A few degrees less than spectacular on the North American hard courts, he will need to stay focused on medium-range rather than short-range or long-range goals. Thus, Djokovic should conserve his energies during the preparatory events and postpone his dreams of Olympic glory until Paris lies behind him.
4. Will Maria complete a boxed set?
Although she cannot hold all four of the majors at the same time, Sharapova would join an extremely select group of women should she complete a calendar Grand Slam. Twice has she reached the semifinals at Roland Garros, and last year she stood closer to victory than ever before when she featured in a final four that included Li, Schiavone, and Bartoli. Scattering early-round losses at all of the other majors, the Russian has reached the second week at seven of the last eight French Opens. Once self-described as a “cow on ice,” Sharapova has embraced the challenge of conquering this surface with the same determination that explains her sterling three-set record. But she never will slide naturally or hit with the heavy spin so effective on clay, where she cannot finish points with her preferred terseness. A runner-up at two of the last three majors, the world #2 lost all three of her finals this year and may struggle to find confidence if she does reach the second Saturday for the first time.
5. Can Federer take something meaningful from the desert?
Winning three consecutive titles in February and March, the Swiss champion propelled himself back into a conversation centered around the top two when he prevailed at Indian Wells. Especially remarkable there was his semifinal victory over Nadal, when he displayed a poise absent from recent meetings with his nemesis. The environment and the format shift dramatically as hard courts change to clay and best-of-three to best-of-five, both of which will hinder Federer’s ability to score an ambush. Curiously, he delivered his best victory of 2011 on clay (d. Djokovic in the Roland Garros semifinals) and suffered some of his worst defeats (l. to Melzer in Monte Carlo and Gasquet in Rome). Among the three Masters 1000 tournaments, Madrid always will offer Federer the best opportunity to showcase his offensively oriented style. Perpetually doomed against Nadal at Roland Garros, he never has allowed that growing recognition to undermine him against anyone else. As he grows older, though, Federer may find the clay increasingly unforgiving to the lapses that his groundstrokes suffer chronically.
6. How many matches will Azarenka lose on clay?
Departing Miami with her winning streak terminated by Bartoli, an exhausted world #1 hinted that she might not play Stuttgart. For this purpose, we will consider just the tournaments in Madrid, Rome, and Paris. A finalist at the former last year, Azarenka should find her hard-court skills suited to the Spanish capital’s altitude, while the rest of an extended hiatus will have allowed her to cope emotionally with her lost perfection. Less friendly to her style are the more typical clay courts of Rome and Roland Garros. Azarenka’s offense/defense hybrid creates a lethal two-edged sword on the slow hard courts that have become the sport’s dominant surface. In theory, she should translate those skills as smoothly to clay as did Djokovic last year. But her more brittle body and more brittle emotions may not allow her to sweep through a span arduous physically and mentally. With Wimbledon, the Olympics, and the US Open on the horizon, she may not set the clay high in her priorities amidst a clogged calendar.
7. Will Murray defeat one of the top three?
Winning a set from Nadal in Monte Carlo last year and dogging him through all three of their sets in Paris, Murray thrust the then-undefeated Djokovic to the edge of the precipice when they met in Rome. Those three semifinals represented a marked improvement in the Scot’s fortunes on clay, previously a dormant interlude between Miami and Wimbledon. Relieved of the expectations that usually burden him, he played with a clearer mind and more assertive strokes. As the insights of Ivan Lendl ricochet through his ears, perhaps he will sharpen his skills even further on the surface where he falls furthest behind the rest of the top three. The Australian Open continued a five-major streak during which he has lost only to Djokovic and Nadal, showing a consistency that he must export to Masters 1000 tournaments. Wildly erratic at that level (three finals, four second-round losses in 2011-12), Murray cannot lose sight of the need to create opportunities before he can exploit them.
8. How hard will Li fall?
Uncommon in recent history is the player who returns to the site of his or her first major title and defends it. Although 2010 champion Schiavone came within a match of duplicating her improbable feat at Roland Garros, 2009 champion Kuznetsova illustrated the more typical trend when she struggled through two matches and stumbled out in the third. As one wonders what path the 2011 titlist will trace, Li’s pedigree offers conflicting answers. The Chinese star has won very few titles at all, but she succeeded brilliantly in perhaps the most pressure-soaked situation of her career at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where she reached the semifinals. Pointing in the opposite direction is her pattern of losing matches after holding match point, including at two of three majors since winning Roland Garros. Before she can convince others that she deserves her elevated stature, Li must convince herself. Consecutive quarterfinals at Indian Wells and Miami looked promising, but her lopsided losses in both of those matches did not.
9. Will we see more thrillers or routs in ATP draws?
A surface that rewards huge serves less than the others, clay encourages a higher proportion of breaks to holds in the men’s game with the exception of Isner, an impervious force of nature. (For the return-oriented WTA, it’s business as usual.) This intriguing dynamic increases the potential of a comeback compared to hard courts by reducing the shadow that a service-break lead casts over a set. And points themselves generally last longer, requiring more shots to end them and rarely concluded by an authoritative serve. On the other hand, clay also increases the potential of a rout when one player’s evident superiority from the baseline prevails in rally after rally, while the serve features merely as the point-starting shot. When these two traits combine, the occurrence of routine scorelines diminishes as both extremes loom larger.
10. How will the blue clay look in Madrid?
Federer and Nadal know what they think, or think that they know what they will think. Tiriac thinks that he knows what viewers at the stadium and on television will think. Not until we actually see players striking balls on the reinvented Manolo Santana arena, however, will we know who actually knew what they or anyone else will think.
6. Two, one at Roland Garros
9. Routs early, thrillers late
10. Strangely beautiful and beautifully strange