As the clay season gets underway, it’s no secret who’s going to be the big favorite heading into the two Masters 1000s and Roland Garros. With the uncertainty surrounding Novak Djokovic, and Roger Federer skipping the clay season, that leaves Rafael Nadal. LWOT will take you through some players who can challenge the king of clay in the next few weeks:
After missing the Miami Open with an ankle injury, Dominic Thiem will make his return at the Monte-Carlo Masters. He showed consistency on clay in 2017 reaching the finals in Barcelona and Madrid and the semifinals in Rome and at Roland Garros. He was 1-3 against Nadal on clay in 2017 with two losses taking place in finals. His one win came in Rome when he snapped Nadal’s 17-match win streak. There’s obviously a ton of uncertainty surrounding Thiem right now after missing time with the ankle injury. With a lot of points to defend in the coming weeks, the pressure is on to see if the 24-year-old Austrian can back up what he did in 2017.
Marin Cilic is heading into the clay season full of confidence after helping Croatia defeat Kazakhstan to advance to the semifinals in the Davis Cup. Cilic had his best result at Roland Garros in 2017, reaching the quarterfinals before falling to eventual runner-up Stan Wawrinka. After a runner-up to start the year in Melbourne, the Croat has struggled to find any form since then. Cilic has been able to take advantage of the inconsistencies on tour reaching a career-high #3 in the world so it wouldn’t shock me if he puts together the best clay season of his career to date.
The unpredictable Fabio Fognini is always dangerous on clay. He had success on the “Golden Swing” earlier this year with a title in Sao Paulo. While Fognini’s best result at Roland Garros is a quarterfinal appearance in 2011, he usually finds a way to play Rafael Nadal closer than most do on the dirt. Fognini is 2-5 against Nadal on clay, including a straight-set loss to the ten-time Roland Garros champion in Paris in 2013. I don’t think Fognini is mentally tough enough to defeat Nadal in a best-of-five set match on clay, but he’ll always find a way to make it interesting.
After defeating David Ferrer in the opening rubber of the Spain-Germany Davis Cup tie, Zverev was unable to clinch the tie after falling to Rafael Nadal in straight sets on Sunday. It almost seemed as if Nadal also made sure to make a statement throughout the match showing the German that he’s back healthy and ready to go for the clay season. Zverev’s Slam struggles are well documented, but he’s too talented for it to not click eventually. In 2017, Zverev handily defeated Novak Djokovic in the Rome final 6-4 6-3 and didn’t face a break point all match. He followed that up with a first-round loss at Roland Garros to Fernando Verdasco in four sets.
Before the Miami Open, it would seem crazy having John Isner anywhere near this list. Going into Miami, Isner only had two wins in 2018–before reeling off six straight wins en route to the first Masters 1000 title of his long career. He should be extremely confident heading into the clay season. Even though clay isn’t his best surface, he’ll always be dangerous with his serve and forehand. In 2017, Isner reached the semifinals in Rome before falling to Alexander Zverev. Isner showed he could push the very best on clay when he took Rafael Nadal to five sets in the first round at Roland Garros in 2011.