The return of The King of Clay? Analysing the upcoming clay court season

Nadal has won the French Open a record nine times. Can he repeat his successes?

2017 has been a great year for tennis. Two fallen champions, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, have had excellent comebacks from a season marred by injuries and poor form, with Roger cutting his season short after his semi-final in Wimbledon and Nadal after his second round in Shangai.

Federer’s story seems more glamorous than Nadal’s. The 35 year old Swiss returned to action after a six month injury layover to rehabilitate his injured knee, and surprised the tennis world and himself by winning the Australian Open against his arch rival Rafael Nadal, against whom he had never won in the Australian Open and doing the very same thing by winning the Sunshine Double. Luckily for the Spaniard, Federer has decided to skip the clay Masters to allow his body to rest, a tactic that seems to have worked for him so far this year.

This doesn’t mean Nadal’s comeback isn’t commendable. The 30 year old Spaniard has reached three finals, two of which he lost against Federer and the other to Sam Querrey in Acapulco. His other results include a fourth round loss in Indian wells to Federer (Boy, how the narrative has changed) and a quarter-final loss to Milos Raonic in Brisbane open.

Winding the Clock Back

At the start of last year’s European clay court season, Nadal’s best result was a final in Qatar. His other results included a first round loss in the Australian open against Verdasco, semi-final losses in the South American Clay court season, and a semi-final and a second round result in the March Masters.

Very hit and miss, especially for someone like Nadal. His overall game had slowed down. He was passive in his shot making, with his shots being within the service lines more often than anyone could expect. He was struggling. However, his clay court season was not bad at all. Not as dominant as we’ve come to expect from Nadal, but nowhere close to bad. He won Monte Carlo and Barcelona, reached the quarter-finals of Rome and the semi-finals of Madrid, losing to Djokovic and Murray respectively. Djokovic won Madrid, while Murray won Rome. While Djokovic won the French, Nadal had extremely convincing wins in the first two rounds, playing extremely well. However, his wrist injury cut his tournament short. Who knows what would have happened had he continue to play?

More important was his change in game. He was moving slightly better; his mental game seemed more solid. He was aggressive, composed and determined, completely unlike the defeated Nadal we had seen in the events leading up to the clay court season.

What does this mean?

A better 2017 clay court season. For sure. Nadal has been playing much, much better. He’s had marked improvements in his backhand, hitting points deeper down the line. His mental game has definitely improved; he’s more confident, aggressive and is moving better overall.

However, his forehand still seems weak. It lacks depth and drive and still lands well within the baseline and in general seems to lack the punch and the spin that Nadal is known for. Could it be rectified? Absolutely. Clay suits Nadal more than anyone, and if anyone’s game benefits from a slow surface, it’s the King of Clay himself.

 

Predictions

I think it’s safe to say Nadal will win at least two of the three Masters, with either Djokovic or Murray winning the remaining one Masters. Heavy-hitters like Thiem or Wawrinka could also make a surprise showing. Nadal could also win Barcelona, where he is the current defending champion. However, as for Roland Garros, it’s too difficult to make any predictions now. However, I’d love for Murray to win it.
Let’s see what happens.

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