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Inside the Line...


Hello tennis fans and welcome to “Inside the Lines,” a column I’ll be writing for the National Bank Open presented by Rogers each week that features news and storylines from the world of men’s tennis.

This week on Inside the Lines, I want to delve into the major threats on clay on the ATP Tour as we shift surfaces for the next portion of the season.

Growing up I was lucky enough to play on both clay and hard courts that my local tennis club in the Town of Mount Royal, Quebec offered its members. Truly, I don’t think I can pick one surface over the other from a player’s perspective and the same can be said while watching the pros. I enjoy the differences between the two and who doesn’t love watching the players slide around that red clay in Europe at this time of year?

When I was younger, there were clear-cut specialists on clay. Guys like Sergi Brugera, Thomas Muster and Guillermo Coria all come to mind. These were players who could grind it out in long rallies on the red dirt, but who otherwise were not often seen going deep in tournaments played on other surfaces.

Today it seems like, for the most part, players have to be solid on all types of surfaces. While we might see some players (especially those from Latin America) have stronger runs on clay during this time of the season, the big threats on the ATP in Monte Carlo, Madrid, Rome and of course Paris, are guys who are able to excel no matter what kind of court they are playing on.

Here’s a few to watch as the Monte-Carlo Masters is now underway and who should also feature prominently over the weeks leading up to Roland-Garros.

Any discussion of clay court tennis has to begin with Rafael Nadal. While we haven’t seen Rafa since the Aussie Open, he’s been training hard and seems to be nearing his return to the court. Whether the 14-time Roland-Garros champion has much clay court preparation before Paris shouldn’t necessarily be a predictor of his potential success there as he’s won the title so many times and with so many different levels of momentum coming in that it really doesn’t seem to matter for him.

While a healthy Rafa has got to be considered the No. 1 threat at the French Open, there are also several very capable challengers. Rafa’s not getting any younger – he turns 37 at the start of June – and many are openly wondering if this will be his last appearance at his favourite tournament. 15 titles at Roland Garros would be another incredibly remarkable career achievement for him.

Novak Djokovic enters the clay court season well-rested after missing out on participating in the Sunshine Swing in Indian Wells and Miami. Unlike Nadal, his time off wasn’t due to injury and he has already logged many hours of practicing on clay for this stretch of the season.

Djokovic has amassed an impressive 15-1 record in 2023 despite limited action and has won Roland Garros twice before (2016 and 2021) along with a slew of other clay court titles. He has 18 titles in fact on clay in his career and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if he hit 20 by the end of this year’s clay season.

Djokovic is currently tied with Nadal for the all-time Slam count with 22 apiece. Wouldn’t it be something if the stars aligned for a French Open final between them to break the tie?

In terms of future champions at Roland-Garros, one would have to think that Carlos Alcaraz is almost a lock if he stays healthy in his career. Alcaraz is one of very few players on the ATP who can boast of defeating both Djokovic and Nadal on clay. Doing that before the age of 20 makes it even more impressive. That huge accomplishment happened last year in Madrid en route to his second career Masters 1000 title.

Alcaraz has yet to face either of the two legends yet in 2023 but tennis fans would love to see it happen at some point during the clay court swing. Maybe a few times too if we’re lucky!

Jannik Sinner’s hot play of late also warrants his inclusion in the clay court discussion. He’s transitioning from hard courts to clay with two excellent events under his belt, making the semis in Indian Wells and then the finals in Miami. The 21-year-old captured the first clay court title of his career in 2022 in Umag and seems ready to take the next step at a larger-scale clay court event this year.

In terms of dark horse players on clay this year, don’t sleep on Dominic Thiem who is definitely a player I’d recommend watching closely. How quickly we forget the way he worked his way into the conversation as a potential heir to Rafael Nadal on the surface between 2016-2019 at the French Open where he made two semifinals and two finals as well.

Just as many were ready to proclaim him the Prince of Clay (ok, I’m not sure if anyone actually used that term, but you get my drift!) he made the final of the Aussie Open in 2020 and captured his first Slam later that year in New York to show his multi-surface skills. A wrist injury seriously derailed his staying power near the top of the men’s game, but he’s shown improvement in recent weeks including making the quarterfinals in Estoril.

Who will you be watching with interest over the next few weeks on clay? Hit me up on Twitter and share your favourites on the surface. It looks like it will be one of the most hotly-contested of clay court seasons we’ve seen in years!