Wednesday, May 21, 2014

A Look Back At Clay Court Season Before The French Open

Defeating Nadal at Rome Masters makes Djokovic the favorite to win the French
Defeating Nadal at Rome Masters makes Djokovic the favorite to win the French
French Open is around the corner. As in any other year, there's a lot to look forward to this year as well. Nadal-Djokovic rivalry heating up just in time to be climaxed once again at the perfect time. Wawrinka is returning to the French Open as the Australian Open champ, trying to go two for two. Federer is once again looking to win his second French Open title, and thereby do what Nadal couldn't do at Australian Open this year - become the only player in Open Era to with every Grand Slam twice.

There's a series of clay court tournaments leading up to the french open. This is where the best come out to establish their clay court stature, and underdogs attempt to undermine them. These tournaments give good breeding ground to the clay court storylines revolving around the top players heading into Paris. It's as if this is where the conflicts of an action movie takes places before reaching a well-anticipated climax in Rolland Garros.

So what are the top storylines of this year's clay court season. Let's start at Monte Carlo. Federer was looking forward to win his first title, having lost to Nadal on three previous attempts in finals. It's identical to his lead-up to the French Open final of 2009, because this year, on the other side of the net, there was no Nadal. It was the highly inspired compatriot Wawrinka. This year has been nothing short remarkable events, highlighted by Wawrinka's beat down of an injured Nadal at the Australian Open to win his maiden grand slam. At Monte Carlo Masters, he went to once again win the title, holding Federer's fourth attempt at the title. Maybe this is another testament to Federer's decline in his own right, as well as Wawrinka's rise to the top.

Besides Wawrinka winning the title, tournament will be remembered for Nadal's early exit at the hands of his fellow Spaniard David Ferrer. The defeat came as a result of a brilliantly-executed game plan by Ferrer, but what not to be overlooked is Nadal's countless unforced errors fueling Ferrer's fire. Having won the tournament on eight consecutive occasions, he was one of the favorite though he lost the final to Djokovic previous year.

Speaking of Djoker, Monte Carlo also raised injury concerns for a seemingly healthy World No. 2. He wasn't able to execute his game plan as half as good as he expected. I was happy see Federer winning this slanted match, not that way.

Nadal went to Barcelona to reverse his bad fortunes from Monte Carlo, like he did last year. However this time it wasn't the case, as he was once again beaten by another fellow Spaniard, Almagro, in the quarter-finals. This is yet another tournament where won it a record either times. However the headline-grabbing news from the tournament wasn't just Nadal's defeat, it was also the triumph of Kei Nishikori. The rising Japanese sensation won his biggest clay court tournament yet.

Madrid was the next stop on the journey of clay court storyline. Djokovic seemed healthy enough to return to the tour following a week's rest, but ended up pulling off from Madrid in the last minute! Then everyone's eyes were on Nadal. How is the great champion going to make a comeback from his two lackluster performances? He did make to the final, and managed to win the title, however there was a catch: he was thoroughly dominated by Nishikori all the way until Kei was subdued his recurring back injury. Nadal got a lucky break, and much needed confidence, but no one was opening champagne  bottles on Team Nadal.

Rome Masters showed the return of Novak Djokovic. He was a top favorite to win both Monte Carlo and Madrid, especially given the nature of Nadal's game. However he had come empty handed, and was burning to get back in the grove. As for Nadal, his lackluster performances continued. He came pretty close to losing to a resurgent Andy Murray in the quarter-finals, but found some old-Nadal in himself and salvage the match. Djokovic was also having a tough time as he had to battle back from being behind a few times. Final of the tournament rightly showcased the two best players of doing battle to garner much needed momentum before the French Open. Like he has done on three previous occasions, Djokovic triumphed Nadal in three sets to win his third Rome Masters title.

So Djokovic is riding high going into Paris, but Nadal.... not so much. He's got some figuring-out to do. Many tennis analysts, like myself , out Djokovic as the favorite ahead of Nadal. But being the favorite doesn't make you a champion, you'd have to win it - something Djokovic hasn't done before, but Nadal has done it eight times!

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