The main clay-court season is officially underway, and this time around it is particularly unclear how the dust might settle.
If Rafael Nadal is truly healthy after aggravating a right knee injury three weeks ago — he has been training at home to prepare for the Monte Carlo Open — he remains the man to beat on the game’s grittiest surface. No one else has won 11 French Open singles titles, and the rational assumption is that no one else ever will.
But the women’s game is in a wondrous state of flux, with 14 different champions in the season’s first 14 tournaments. And none of them was named Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova or Simona Halep.
“It’s by far the most wide-open field as far as I can remember,” Chris Evert, the former No. 1 and a seven-time French Open champion, said in an interview Tuesday. “No one seems to have obvious momentum above the other. It’s not only the closeness in talent and skills. Attitudes, emotions and fitness and injuries enter into it as well. I have no clue.”
Serena Williams has not won a title since returning to the tour in March 2018 after giving birth to her daughter. She has played only three tournaments this season and has not finished any of them feeling healthy. She twisted an ankle while on the brink of victory in an Australian Open quarterfinal against Karolina Pliskova and lost a 5-1 third-set lead, unable to convert on four match points.
In Indian Wells, Calif., Williams retired in the third round against Garbiñe Muguruza, citing a viral illness. In Miami, she withdrew after winning her opening match, citing a left knee injury. Williams is 37, and her knees have long been a concern, restricting her training through the years. She does not plan to compete again until the Italian Open in Rome in mid-May, shortly before the French Open.
That will leave her short of matches against an increasingly deep and confident field, which is full of young, exciting talents with all-court games who have grown up dealing with big pace. Williams’s quest for a record-tying 24th Grand Slam singles title, which once looked like only a matter of time, is now a more complicated matter.
But discounting Williams is rarely a winning proposition. She has managed to play some sparkling tennis in 2019, striking the ball very cleanly in some of the early rounds in Australia and again in her victory over Victoria Azarenka in Indian Wells.
“A healthy Serena is a dangerous Serena; she hasn’t been healthy all year,” Evert said. “She still has an edge in power and experience.”
Williams also has the most impressive career record on clay of any active player: 170-34. Her career winning percentage of 83.3 puts her ahead of Sharapova, who is at 81.5 percent with plenty of doubt swirling about her form and her tennis future at age 31.
Happy off the court but vulnerable on it, she has not competed since January because of injuries and has not reached a tour final since winning the Tianjin Open in October 2017.
Halep has the best clay-court numbers over the last few seasons and leads the WTA Tour’s clay-court power rankings, which give more weight to recent results.
But even as she again closes in on being No. 1, Halep, 27, has hardly been dominant. Oui, she won last year’s French Open, her first Grand Slam singles title. But she has not won another clay-court title since Madrid in May 2017 and has not won a tournament on any surface since the Rogers Cup in Canada in August.
Without Darren Cahill as her coach this season, Halep has not looked like the same resolute and selectively aggressive force, although her run to the semifinals of the Miami Open last week was encouraging.
The biggest prizes in 2019 have gone to younger women, all under age 23.
Naomi Osaka, 21, won the year’s first Grand Slam title at the Australian Open and remains No. 1 by a whisker. Belinda Bencic, 22, won the Premier 5 event in Dubai. Most surprisingly, Bianca Andreescu, 18, won the Premier Mandatory event in Indian Wells, and then Ashleigh Barty, 22, confirmed her steady rise by winning in Miami.
Andreescu and Barty have the skills to thrive on clay — their strong topspin forehands, quick feet and ability to hit sliced backhands, well-disguised drop shots and heavy first and second serves.
But the big-hitting Osaka has a losing record on clay (9-11) and likes to call herself “a hardcourt player.”
She also has lost momentum since her surprising split with her coach, Sascha Bajin, after the Australian Open. She has hired Venus Williams’s former hitting partner, Jermaine Jenkins, a college star with a reassuring courtside demeanor. But for now, Osaka is only 3-3 since winning in Melbourne, with losses to Kristina Mladenovic in Dubai, to Bencic in Indian Wells and to the changeup artist Hsieh Su-wei in Miami.
Novak Djokovic, the men’s No. 1, also has the wind in his face after losing early in Indian Wells and Miami. But he has won three Grand Slam singles titles in a row, and it is difficult to disregard the memory of Djokovic having his way from the baseline against Nadal in the Australian Open final.
Nadal, 32, continues to battle his body. A recurrence of tendinitis in his right knee caused him to withdraw before his semifinal against Roger Federer in Indian Wells. At this stage, he knows too well the price of pushing through pain, although pain has been a constant. How much longer can he do it?
“Who knows? Perhaps two or three years more,” Toni Nadal, his uncle and former coach, said at a recent appearance in Majorca. “What I say is that Rafael is not a person who plays tennis. He is an injured person who plays tennis, and that is very difficult.”
Nadal is back training hard in Majorca on a surface that is more forgiving to his joints than hardcourts. He is on schedule to defend his title in Monte Carlo this month. Djokovic and No. 5 Dominic Thiem, Nadal’s two most obvious rivals for the biggest men’s clay-court titles, are expected to challenge him there. So is third-ranked Alexander Zverev, who has a fine clay-court record and the talent to win multiple majors but has been slumping.
Federer, back on a roll at age 37 after winning in Miami and intent on returning to clay after a three-year break, plans to come back in Madrid in early May after training in Switzerland.
“I still think Rafa is in a great place on clay,” said David Macpherson, the coach of John Isner, the top-ranked American, who may miss much of the clay-court season with a stress fracture in his foot. “The only one who has shown the ability to break up Rafa’s game at times is Novak, with his ability to smother that topspin forehand early with his pure two-handed backhand and negate Rafa’s strengths on clay. So that’s always a fascinating matchup.”
But based on all the plot twists and ankle twists in 2019 so far, there are no guarantees that it will be the decisive matchup.
Time to watch the dust try to settle.
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