Volatility Set to Continue in Men’s Tennis During Clay Season

John Isner Men's Tennis

It has been a peculiar time in men’s tennis lately, with a lot of players, young and old, achieving career-best results and rankings and some established champions falling from grace due to injury and decline. The last six Masters 1000 tournaments have been won by six different players, with five of them – Alexander Zverev, Grigor Dimitrov, Jack Sock, Juan Martin del Potro and John Isner – being first-time champions at this level.

At Slam level, the status quo has been maintained as far as title winners go at least, with Federer and Nadal grabbing every title since the beginning of 2017, but there still have been some breakthroughs with Kevin Anderson reaching a first final. Sam Querrey, Hyeon Chung and Kyle Edmund have also all reached a semifinal. It is clear that there’s more parity in men’s tennis right now than there has been at any time since the early 2000s before Federer started to dominate. As soon as Federer was out in Miami, it became a completely unpredictable tournament where at least a dozen players looked to have realistic winning chances. It eventually ended with Isner – who was 1-6 for the year prior to Miami – taking the title in a final against Zverev – who was just off losing in the 1st round at Indian Wells.
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Can Rafael Nadal restore some normality to men’s tennis?

There’s no reason to believe this parity isn’t set to continue throughout the clay season… well, except a little reason called Rafael Nadal. For the last about 15 years talking about clay court tennis has become synonymous with Nadal, who’s always the man to beat in every clay tournament he plays. He could easily make a mockery of this so-called parity and just sweep the entire clay season, but at the same time, age and injury could have left him vulnerable enough where at least a couple of big trophies will be there for the taking.

The reality is that if you exclude Nadal big clay tournaments become no different than the recent Miami Masters 1000, with a winner being almost impossible to pick. Federer has already confirmed that he won’t play any clay tournaments. Djokovic has been on a long struggle with injury and has just recently fired his entire coaching team, it’s hard to imagine he’ll be firing on all cylinders this clay season. Stan Wawrinka is dealing with injury problems of his own and looks no closer to finding his form back. Andy Murray will be out at least until Wimbledon and the only other active player to win a clay title at Masters 1000 level or above is Zverev, who’s far from reliable to go consistently deep in tournaments.
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Without Nadal who are the clay court contenders?

Any big tournament that Nadal doesn’t win has a myriad of possible outcomes and the possibility of more new champions in the clay Masters is very real. Dominic Thiem is considered by many as the second best clay court player in men’s tennis at the moment and only Nadal kept him from the Madrid title and Roland Garros final last year. David Goffin is another excellent clay court player and, assuming he’s recovered from his eye issues, he’ll be aiming for a strong clay showing. Kei Nishikori has come close a few times at clay Masters, but these are just the obvious names. Sock in Paris and Isner in Miami weren’t even thought of as second-tier title contenders. They basically came out of nowhere to win. Men’s tennis is at a stage where you almost have to expect the unexpected. At this point, the shock would be if there’s not a new winner in at least one of the Masters 1000. Assuming Nadal doesn’t just sweep them all (which he hasn’t since 2010), a new winner is practically inevitable.

Can this unpredictability translate into Slams? It already has to some degree, though only as far as players making it deep rather than the winners. But at some point, Nadal and Federer will loosen their grip on the Slams and the randomness that has defined the big best-of-3 tournament in the past 12 months will fully translate to the Grand Slam level bar the emergence of new dominant players (or reemergence, if someone like Djokovic returns to his best). It could happen as soon as the summer Slams at Paris and London this year.

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