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By Chris Oddo | Wednesday April 11, 2018

Spring is here, and that could only mean one thing for tennis fans: clay. The road to Roland Garros kicks into high gear next week with the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters, and from that point on we move steadily across Europe with Paris on our collective minds. So what are the prevailing storylines as we begin this journey? And what did we learn in the first three months of the season that might give us an indication of which players will have the most success?

Here are five key storylines to keep an eye on as the Road to RG begins:

1. Nadal Going for 11

What can you get for the man who has everything? More of everything? That’s the gist of Rafael Nadal’s clay-court career and the Spaniard will look to win a gaudy 11th title in Monte-Carlo, Barcelona and Roland Garros this season, and he’ll certainly be the favorite to do that if he can stay healthy.

Nadal finally showed mid-season form last week in Valencia, where he won two singles rubbers convincingly in Davis Cup play. It’s the first indication that the bull of Mallorca is ready to put his injury issues behind him for another romp on the red clay this spring. He’ll look to build on that momentum in Monte-Carlo next week, and he’ll soon be closing in on his 400th career clay court victory (he is currently 11 shy at 389).

Since giving a third-round walkover to Marcel Granollers at Roland Garros in 2016, Nadal has gone 24-1 on the clay, losing only to Dominic Thiem in the Rome quarterfinal last season.

With Nadal we know the game is there--he's proven time and time again that he's the best on the surface--but the bigger question is about his health. He was hit by a surprise injury at the Australian Open this year and there is no guarantee that he won't struggle again this spring, especially if he pushes too hard in the quest to maintain the No.1 ranking. Has he had enough time to heal? It certainly appears so, based on his performance at Davis Cup, but Nadal's health will be watched more closely than his form this spring, and the better he plays, the more matches he'll have to survive.

If he does stay healthy, Dominic Thiem shapes up as his main rival this season, unless…

2. Djokovic and Vajda looking to Rekindle Magic

Novak Djokovic can find his best tennis again under the tutelage of Marian Vajda. Is it really that far-fetched to think that Djokovic can rise again and become a rival to Nadal on the clay? Maybe it’s too soon, but tennis fans will be looking for clues next week as the Serb plays Monte-Carlo as the No.9 seed. It’s been a strange, difficult season for Djokovic, who tried to play the Australian swing but was hampered with an elbow problem. After a medical procedure in February, his body has looked more healthy but the crisis of confidence has continued. He parted ways with coach Andre Agassi and Radek Stepanek and has reunited with longtime coach Vajda in Europe.

Will the Slovak help Djokovic regain his swagger? It’s not unthinkable. Let’s not forget that this is a player that went 94-13 on clay from 2011-2016, splitting eight finals with king of clay Nadal. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since Djokovic won his one and only Roland Garros title in 2016, and he’s gone from being the undisputed king of tennis to a massive question mark in those two years, but with Vajda on board, there is a growing sentiment that the Road to Roland Garros can function as a road to redemption for Djokovic. This could be the beginning of a long awaited return to form.

3. Thiem Ready for Next Step?

Thanks to Djokovic’s struggles, Austria’s Dominic Thiem has risen to second-best clay-court player status on the ATP side, and it’s well deserved. Thiem is 55-13 on the surface since the beginning of 2016 with wins over all member of the Big Four, including two over Nadal and a takedown of Djokovic at Roland Garros last season. So, is the burly Austrian ready to take his clay game to the next level? He just may be.

Thiem is a very strong player on all surfaces, but he plays a punishing, powerful, spin-based game that is terrifyingly effective on clay. He does a lot of the things that Nadal does—he obliterates opponents with high-bouncing topspin and he’s relentless on the surface. He plays with swagger, putting 100 percent of his body and soul into each groundstroke, and he’s so comfortable slipping five meters behind the baseline that it’s almost impossible to hit winners against him. In short: Thiem’s a nightmare to face, and with each passing season, as his experience facing top players on the biggest stages grows, he gets better. He’s not yet reached his peak, and when he does he’ll likely be hoisting the Coupe Des Mousquetaires in Paris.

Will that peak come this season, or will he be made to wait?

4. Next in Line?

With Roger Federer skipping the clay season in full, and Stan Wawrinka still not in great shape after having offseason knee surgery, there’s an opening for a rising player to poke through and potentially challenge for the biggest titles this spring. We saw Alexander Zverev do that last year when he captured Rome and became the youngest Masters 1000 titlist in over a decade. But Zverev has struggled a bit this year and the door might be open for the likes of Borna Coric or Hyeon Chung to make a mark.

Chung has been in fantastic form in 2018, reaching the Australian Open semifinal and reaching at least the quarterfinals of his last six events. Plus he proved his worth on the clay when he went 18-6 (including qualies) in 2017.

Coric is 14-5 this season and he’s historically been a better player on clay than on any other surface. His physicality and methodical approach to point construction make him a very strong player on the clay. Can the Croatian turn a corner in 2018? If not there are others to watch, including Marin Cilic, Juan Martin del Potro and David Goffin.

5. No.1 on the Line

Nadal will begin his 170th week at No.1 next week at Monte-Carlo, which will tie him with John McEnroe for sixth-most weeks at No.1 all-time. But to stay on top he’ll have to successfully defend his title in the principality. He’ll also need to defend his titles in Barcelona and Madrid, or Federer will climb back to No.1 despite being on vacation.

Nadal can earn any points he loses back at Rome, where he fell in the quarterfinals last season, so we could see some flip-flopping into and through Roland Garros.


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