April 11, 2019
How is Rafa’s body? How is Novak’s mind? What about Roger’s memory? Is Naomi really scared? Can Serena come good again?
The first big date with clay awaits in Monte Carlo on Sunday and so many intriguing questions remain unanswered.
Can Rafael Nadal use the coming weeks to build towards a twelfth Roland Garros title?
Can Novak Djokovic become the first man to hold all four Grand Slam titles simultaneously on two separate occasions?
Will Roger Federer remember how to play great tennis on clay, when he hasn’t played Roland Garros since 2015?
There have been concerns about Nadal’s injured knee but he seems to have recovered his fitness back home.
How will that troubled body hold up though? Doubts remain about Rafa’s durability these days, particularly the prospect of a fortnight of intense, high-pressure action in Paris.
Nadal normally comes good, of course. He is known as the King of Clay for a reason. But Rafa isn’t getting any younger.
And even his uncle Toni describes him not so much as a tennis player these days, more as an injured person who plays tennis.
That’s a dramatic way to put it. But he has a point.
What’s with Novak Djokovic this time?
He flopped at Indian Wells and Miami, blaming off-field distractions. Let’s hope that was nothing more than tennis politics at work. We don’t want Novak and a tennis racquet to become strangers, as they did a couple of years back.
A repeat seems unlikely. The chance to hold all four Slams once more should be enough to improve Novak’s focus.
So we expect a classic on the clay between Djokovic and Nadal some time soon – with a final between the pair at Roland Garros a distinct possibility.
Novak can at least play feeling secure in the knowledge that it is virtually impossible for Rafa to take away his top ranking. Nadal has 4680 points to defend on clay, Djokovic only 855.
Can Roger Federer gatecrash the clay-court tennis party?
Federer aims to play Madrid next month and might also join the fun in Rome.
Whatever it takes to get Roger ready for his first shot at the French Open for four years.
He claims he doesn’t even remember how to slide on clay, but missed the surface and wants to give it another go.
Federer has even suggested that a few tough clay-court clashes will make him even fitter for Wimbledon.
And whatever happens, Federer will be pressure-free on clay, since no one expects him to do all that well.
As we know from recent years, a pressure-free Federer who is just out to enjoy himself on a tennis court suddenly becomes an even-more-dangerous and successful Federer. So we can’t rule him out.
Then there is Dominic Thiem, who is more than capable of beating the biggest names on clay, including the great Nadal.
And any number of next-gen stars will be lining up to take advantage; if the more experienced favourites slip up.
The biggest question among the women surrounds Naomi Osaka.
Champion of the US and Australian Opens, but fearful of clay and grass if her recent confession is to be believed.
The decision to part company with her coach after Australia won’t have helped Naomi’s mindset in the short term.
But can she now show that familiar fighting spirit for the biggest occasions on clay?
Or is the stage set for Simona Halep to dominate once more?
And how could we possibly forget the threat still posed by the greatest of them all, Serena Williams?
She is due to join in the clay-court fun in Italy. But she is even more at home in Paris.
We can never rule Williams out, despite the physical and mental fatigue she has begun to show at the business end of Slams.
So many questions to be answered!
With Novak unable to show his best form of late and Roger rusty on clay, Rafa has to be the marginal favourite for Roland Garros, although watch out for Thiem.
With Osaka still finding her feet after changes behind the scenes, and Serena short of big-match practice, Halep has a great chance to impose herself at the French Open.
But the big one in Paris is still a good few weeks away.
For now, let’s all enjoy the rest of the fun in the European dirt. Can Rafa can make it a Dirty Dozen at Roland Garros come the end of the clay campaign, let’s see.
All this clay court talk is getting us excited for Wimbledon! Click here to secure your tickets to Wimbledon 2019