On a surface where the ball bounces high and travels slow, where mastering the art of sliding is as important as serving well, the traditional player who relies upon thundering aces and speeding forehands to finish points may not always succeed. It requires a special skill set, tons of patience and high levels of endurance to win those long points on those devilish clay courts. It is not for nothing that the French Open is billed the toughest Grand Slam to conquer.
When the second Grand Slam of the season begins on May 22, the ‘Big Four’ — Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal — will have their own inner demons to slay.
World No.1 Djokovic is slowly chipping away the concept of the ‘Big Four’ with his absolute dominance on the ATP circuit. He has made it to the final in five successive Grand Slam tournaments and secured the title in four to firmly establish himself as the Big One. But like many other greats before him, including Pete Sampras, John McEnroe, Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg, The Musketeers’ Trophy at Roland Garros has proved to be long-elusive. It has prevented him from completing a career slam but this may well be his year.
Challenging him for the throne will be World No. 2 Andy Murray who has put in the hard yards to improve his game on his least preferred surface. Murray hasn’t gone beyond the semi-final stage in Paris and will be keen to get that title off his list at the earliest.
Rafael Nadal will once again begin his quest for the La Decima at Roland Garros and re-establish himself as the King of Clay. Knee and wrist injuries coupled with a dip in form have made him vulnerable on a court on which he was once considered invincible. But when it comes to the French Open, you can never really write off Nadal. He can tire you out playing the waiting game and has a repertoire of spin shots to unsettle any opponent on clay.
Roger Federer, who is caught in a battle between his young, Grand Slam-hungry mind and a tired, worn out body, has reluctantly started conceding defeat to the latter. For now, Federer’s only aim is to make it to Roland Garros, but a back injury may bring an end to his record of 65 successive Grand Slam appearances.
With Federer mostly out of title contention this year and Nadal nowhere near his rock solid game, the other names likely to pose a major threat to the record-chasing Djokovic or his close rival Murray will be the unpredictable defending champion Stanislas Wawrinka and the fast improving Japanese Kei Nishikori.
Wawrinka has been having a lacklustre season and hasn’t had any wins against big players recently. But it would be foolish to write off the aggressive Swiss especially when it comes to big matches. He revels under pressure. He can play the long game and keep hitting those glorious backhands to come up trumps in this high-endurance competition.
Kei Nishikori, in all likelihood, is going to be the player the top contenders have to be wary about. The World No. 6 has only one title to show for this year (Memphis Open) but that is because he has been halted on his march once by Murray, twice by Nadal and thrice by Djokovic. The Japanese ace hasn’t had any trouble beating the rest. Now that Nishikori has the measure of Djokovic, it is not beyond him to halt the World No. 1. Nishikori almost succeeded at the Rome Masters, taking Djokovic to a deciding set tie-breaker in the last major tournament before the top players head for the second Grand Slam of the year.
Among the young crop, promoted extensively as the Next Generation of ATP World Tour Stars, Australian Nick Kyrgios is well equipped to hand defeats to the top 10 players. Currently ranked World No. 20, Kyrgios has already tasted success against Murray (Hopman Cup), Wawrinka, Tomas Berdych and Milos Raonic this year and even stretched Nadal to three sets at the Rome Masters. The volatile 21-year-old, who has had his share of controversies with umpires, fans and even his country’s Olympic chef de mission, may require a lot more by way of temperament to be considered a serious challenger.
Another youngster who has been fairly impressive is World No. 15 Dominic Thiem. The 22-year-old has had a highly successful 2016 so far with two ATP tour wins (in Argentina and Mexico), one runner-up result and two semi-final finishes, humbling Nadal, Cilic, Ferrer, Dmitrov and Federer in the process. His win-loss record of 32-9 is second only to Novak Djokovic (37-3) for the most match wins this year. Another reason why we think he can be the Trojan horse is his affinity for clay courts. Of his total of five career titles, four have come on clay. It may be too early for the forehand specialist to lift the trophy, but he surely can ruffle up things in Paris causing one or two upsets along the way.
Germany’s Alexander Zverev is yet another exciting talent, who looks set to shake up the top order in the years to come. The lanky 19-year-old has literally lived on the tennis court all his way. He has watched Djokovic and Murray play in the junior circuit and has had practise sessions with them when he could hardly hold a racquet.
The outspoken Australian Bernard Tomic has got all the shots needed in the book to excel and to challenge anyone for the title. If not for his lack of temperament and a tendency to give up too easily, he might have found a place as one of the possible challengers for the Big Four. Grigor Dmitrov and Borna Coric too have the skill sets, but have been inconsistent in the long run.
The slow red dirt has crushed many a dream. It has also given rise to many. The NextGen players have slowly started knocking on the doors of the Big Four. They have managed to get those one-off victories, but it may still be sometime before they stake a claim to be serious Grand Slam contenders.
For now, it will take something extraordinary to stop the Serb from completing the ‘Djoker slam.’