This doesn’t look familiar: The Road to Roland Garros

The clay-court season is underway and so far, this season has been anything but predictable. So far, we’ve seen Rafael Nadal lose to two fellow Spaniards, David Ferrer and Nico Almagro. Stan Wawrinka was the Swiss on top in his match against Roger Federer in Monte Carlo. Novak Djokovic has been sidelined with a wrist injury. Other clay court title holders from the first part of the European swing include Kei Nishikori, Grigor Dimitrov, Carlos Berloq, Martin Klizan, Guillermo Garcia-Lopez and Fernando Verdasco. That’s right, only one top-10 player has a clay court title in the clay season: Wawrinka. Is this unpredictability a bad thing for the tour? All things considered, this season could shape up to be one of the more memorable clay swings in years.

Getty Images

Getty Images

To begin with, we have a few younger players stepping up and getting some big victories. Kei Nishikori won his first clay court tournament and second title of the year in Barcelona. After having to pull out of his semifinal against Djokovic in Miami, it’s good to see Kei stepping up winning a 500-level tournament. Grigor Dimitrov, the youngest of the clay-title holders of 2014, just took the title in Bucharest, also for his second tile of the year. Kei didn’t play Monte Carlo and Grigor was out in the third round to Ferrer, so their Madrid runs will be very telling as to how they’ll fare at Roland Garros.

Another reason why this unpredictable season isn’t so bad is because the fans finally get a little more drama heading into the Clay Slam. In years past, the clay swing has been heavily dominated by Rafa Nadal, or Novak Djokovic if Rafa was injured. Last year’s biggest drama arguably came from the blue clay of Madrid. Fans didn’t seem to mind the blue clay on its own, but with the players constantly complaining about it – and many falling victim to it – fans missed out on what’s usually a really exciting tournament.

In years past, when Rafa played a close match, it was fun to watch him grind his way through to the next round. This year, no one’s sure he’s going to – even Rafa who has admittedly had confidence issues since Stan won the Australian Open. That said, he’s Rafa Nadal and he’ll find a way. His backhand isn’t as reliable as it has been in years past and he’s more error prone than before, but Nadal didn’t become the best clay court player in the history of tennis by sheer luck. Nadal finds a way to fight through his injuries and his doubts to claim title after title. With Madrid and Rome still ahead between now and Roland Garros, Rafa has plenty of opportunity to work out the kinks in his game and attitude.

This week in Madrid will be a good show of how the top players are handling the clay season. Rafa’s draw isn’t the kind of draw that would normally worry him, but he’s gone down to lesser opponents this season. Wawrinka and Ferrer both have open draws now that Djoker’s out, so perhaps we’ll see a meeting of these two in the semifinals.

What do you think of the clay swing so far: happy for the variety or sad Rafa isn’t dominating? Sound off in the comments!




Brian Stacey is a longtime tennis fan, often tweeting his thoughts over at @Roddickulous. He still believes that Andy Roddick will win a Wimbledon title and has eternal optimism about US Men's tennis.