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By Chris Oddo | @TheFanChild | Wednesday April 3, 2024

Nadal Roland-Garros

Bring on the clay! Things are already heating up on the red clay across the globe - here are 8 storylines to watch for.

Photo Source: AP

With the Sunshine double in the rearview, the exodus to clay has begun. Already five clay court events – Charleston, Bogota, Marrakech, Houston and Estoril – are underway, with the first ATP Masters at Monte-Carlo coming next week!

Tennis Express

With that in mind, here are 8 storylines to look out for on the clay this spring:

1. Rafa’s Last Go?

The general consensus is that Rafael Nadal has been extremely cautious about playing on hard courts this spring in order to ensure that he is in fighting shape for what will likely be the King of Clay’s last full-blown clay-court season.

It’s unclear if Nadal will play in Monte-Carlo (which beging next week). The Spanish legend last took the court at the Netflix Slam, an exhibition in Las Vegas in early March, then promptly pulled out of Indian Wells. 14-time Roland-Garros champion Nadal has played just seven matches since the start of the 2023 season due to various injury issues. Will he ever be ready to go or will retirement be the next big story to break?

The tennis world waits with bated breath for news from the Spaniard’s camp regarding his plans…

2. Coachless Novak

Novak Djokovic, on the other hand, has definite plans, even if he doesn’t have a definite coach. After parting ways with longtime coach Goran Ivanisevic, the 24-time major champion is coachless in Monte-Carlo, but has been working closely with former Serbian Davis Cup Captain Nenad Zimonjic.

Will that be Djokovic’s next coach? Your guess is as good as ours at the moment. What we do know is that the clay season will be incredibly important for Djokovic. He enters April without a title on the season for the just the third time since 2007. With Jannik Sinner and Carlos Alcaraz now providing legitimate competition for Slam titles and the No.1 ranking, it’s high time for the Grand Slam king to take some of the power back. He’ll turn 37 on May 22, and his formerly invincible aura will benefit greatly if he has scooped up a title before then, just to remind the others that he’s still the boss.

3. Queen Iga

Speaking of bosses, clay juggernaut Iga Swiatek heads into the clay-court season firmly entrenched as the No.1 player on the WTA Tour, and far and away the top clay-courter. Since the start of 2022 Swiatek is 37-3 on the clay and she has won her second and third Roland-Garros titles in that span.

Will the Pole make it a threepeat in Paris this year? Odds most certainly favor her.

4. Sinner’s Time to Shine?

Over the last two seasons, Jannik Sinner has made his mark on the fast-playing hard courts of the ATP Tour -- both indoors and outdoors -- but he has yet to establish himself as a true force on the red clay.

Improving his status on the surface will be Sinner’s top priority this spring, as the newly crowned Grand Slam champion and freshly minted World No.2 seeks to expand his empire. Sinner has 15 Top-5 wins to his name, but only one of those victories – over Carlos Alcaraz in the 2022 Umag final – has come on clay.

Sinner hasn’t been horrible on the clay – over the course of his career he’s gone 43-20 with one title – but his 68.3 winning percentage on the surface is significantly lower than his 76.8 ratio on hard courts. Sinner went 8-3 on clay in 2023 with a semifinal in Monte-Carlo as his best performance. The Italian has made four career appearances at Roland-Garros with his quarterfinal run on his debut in 2020 his best performance to date.

5. Comeback [with] Kids

Expect a lot of high profile players among the unseeded ranks this spring, as the comebacks of former No.1 and Grand Slam winning talents like Naomi Osaka (ranked 192), Caroline Wozniacki (ranked 126) and Angelique Kerber (ranked 332) continue.

There’s also Amanda Anisimova, 2019 Roland Garros runner up, who is currently ranked 264.

6. Casper’s Next Step

Casper Ruud has shed a few pounds of extra weight and recommitted to his quickness around the court in 2024, and it shows. The Norwegian is off to a stellar start, winning 18 of his first 23 matches, and while he doesn’t have a title to his name thus far in 2024, that could change soon as he gets on his favorite surface once again.

The two-time Roland-Garros finalist is 75-20 on the clay since the start of 2021, with eight titles. At Roland Garros in that span he is 14-3, with two finals.

We've said it before and we'll say it again. Casper Ruud is a Top-10 player on any surface, but on clay he's more like a Top-4 player.

7. Olympic Dreams

The close of Roland-Garros this year will mark the Olympic cutoff, which means that the next few months will see a lot of players jockeying for position on the red clay, hoping to qualify for the summer Olympics in Paris. The top 56 players in the singles rankings as of June 10 qualify, but only if they are the top four in their nation’s rankings as well. It will be an interesting race for many...

8. If Not Iga, Then Who?

We’ve talked about Iga Swiatek’s potential clay-court domination, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be a cast of characters angling to dethrone the three-time Roland-Garros champion. Coco Gauff, not so far removed from her US Open title, is one of them. Aryna Sabalenka, the World No.2 who had match points to reach her first final in Paris last year, is another. And don’t forget Elena Rybakina, last year’s Rome champion who was riding an eight-match winning streak into the third round at Roland-Garros before pulling out due to illness.

There are others who could potentially do some damage on the clay this year, such as 2017 Roland-Garros champion Jelena Ostapenko, resurgent Greek Maria Sakkari, Brazil’s Beatriz Haddad Maia, China’s Zheng Qinwen, Russia’s Daria Kasatkina and more.


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