The European clay court season is getting underway in Monte Carlo as players adjust to the different characteristics of the red dirt. Each year, clay court specialists peak for this part of the season and there are five players I believe we should keep a close eye on over the next few weeks.
Ten Monte Carlo titles, ten Barcelona titles, ten Roland Garros titles, the list goes on for the greatest player ever to play on this surface. When you think of clay, you think of Rafael Nadal. He was absolutely stunning in Spain’s epic Davis Cup victory over Germany, and that was his return to competition after three months out the game.
The King of Clay never needs an incentive but there is a pretty big one for him: to stay at #1 he must defend his titles in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid. It will not be easy but Nadal is head and shoulders above the rest on this surface. I suspect he will dominate the clay season once again.
The Austrian is widely regarded as the second best clay court player in the world right now. His explosive game is so well suited to the slow red dirt. Last year, Thiem was impeccable in the European clay season and he was the only player to defeat Nadal on that surface all year.
He was sidelined in Indian Wells and will make his comeback to the tour in Monte Carlo where he has been handed a tough draw which could see him have to defeat Djokovic and Nadal just to reach the semifinals. However, Thiem is a momentum player who needs matches to find his absolute best so once he finds his rhythm, the Austrian will be pretty tough to beat on this surface.
Pablo Carreno Busta
The Spanish #2 is a gritty competitor who makes life extremely difficult for his opponents with his consistent style of play. Although his best results have been on hard courts, I would say that clay is his best surface and he did reach his first Grand Slam quarter-final at the French Open last year.
The scariest thing about Carreno Busta is that he is so much better than he was last year and that is a credit to his hunger for the game and work rate. He may not be the flashiest player but the Spaniard will wear down his opponents as he refuses to miss. He has been posting fantastic results at Grand Slam events lately and it looks like that will continue. Make sure you watch out for Pablo Carreno Busta over the clay season.
The 5’7 Argentine is one of the most improved players on the ATP Tour and has just made his top-15 debut. Schwartzman is a great player on all surfaces but it is clay where he shines and produces his best tennis. The Argentine certainly packs a punch and has a bigger game than you would expect for someone of his size.
At the French Open last year, he was one set away from defeating Novak Djokovic in the third round so he certainly is not fazed by the big names. Schwartzman has already won a clay court title this year and it was the biggest title of his career so far: the ATP 500 event in Rio. The Argentine is rapidly climbing up the rankings and no one will take him lightly on the red dirt.
The enigmatic Frenchman looks as focused as ever and the 31-year-old knows his time at the top will not last forever. Clay is Monfils’ best surface and we are so used to seeing him sliding around the court retrieving balls that he has no right to. He has reached a Roland Garros semifinal, and three other quarterfinals there so he certainly has some pedigree on clay.
Monfils seems to be revolving his season around the French Open. For the first time in his career, he played the South American Golden Swing as opposed to hard court events. In his new YouTube series La Monf Story, he said: “my main objective, like every year, but this year, even more, will still be Roland Garros”. Who knows, Gael Monfils could produce another piece of magic to stun the French crowd on the Parisian clay.