Over the next eight weeks, starting on Sunday with the Monte Carlo Masters and concluding in June at the French Open, the clay courts of Europe take over the ATP Tour. Ahead of the Masters 1000 tournament in Monaco, here are some key talking points.
If anyone can, it’s Nadal
American great John McEnroe once described beating Rafael Nadal on clay as "the toughest task in tennis". It's difficult to argue against that claim. The Spaniard's remarkable record on the red dust speaks for itself and is too substantial to list in full here, but 10 titles and just two defeats at the French Open provides adequate proof of Nadal's unprecedented dominance.
After an injury-disrupted 2016 that affected results and saw Nadal claim 'only' two of the five clay court titles on offer while withdrawing midway through the French Open, the Spaniard was back with a vengeance last season. Nadal lost just one match, won four titles and completed his Roland Garros 'La Decima'. This run played no small part in helping Nadal reclaim the No 1 ranking, although the Spaniard could become a victim of his own success.
Nadal, 31, holds a slender 100-point advantage over second-ranked Roger Federer, so for the 16-time grand slam champion to prevent his Swiss rival from reclaiming top spot ahead of his bid for a ninth Wimbledon title in July, Nadal will essentially need to replicate his 2017 achievements.
He could falter in one tournament and progress beyond the Rome Masters quarter-finals – the stage at which he lost to Dominic Thiem last year – but four titles, including an 11th French Open – will be the aim for Nadal to retain his No 1 status. However, with a clay court record that boasts 391 victories set against just 35 defeats, a record 53 titles, and having won 28 of his past 29 clay matches, if any player can achieve the required results, it's Nadal.
Au revoir Federer?
After his early exit from the Miami Open, Federer, not surprisingly, announced he would once again be skipping the entire clay court season. Federer, preferring to focus his energies on the grass court swing, applied the same strategy last year with successful results, including an eighth Wimbledon title, and has decided the best way to plot an assault on title No 9 is to save his body from the rigours of the clay.
The decision in 2017 was based on Federer’s fitness concerns having returned in January from a six-month knee injury layoff. This year’s decision, however, has been met with a smattering of criticism, particularly from Spanish player Feliciano Lopez, who said Federer should “respect the tour and compete the whole year”.
Either way, with 36-year-old Federer approaching the final stages of his career, it now looks improbable the 2009 French Open champion will be seen again on a clay court. While comprehensively trailing in Nadal’s wake, Federer still collected 11 clay court titles over his career – an impressive return on his least-favoured surface. That, however, is likely to be that.
Where is everyone?
Federer's absence from the clay court swing has been well documented, but where are the rest of the old guard? Novak Djokovic, winner of 13 clay court titles including the 2016 French Open, takes his place in the first round of the Monte Carlo Masters, but little is known of his progress.
The former world No 1 has competed in just three tournaments this season, and after visibly struggling during the Australian Open, most recently lost both matches at Indian Wells and Miami.
Djokovic, who is battling to overcome a long-term elbow injury, has also dispensed with his coaching setup for the second time in as many years. Despite his recent difficulties, Djokovic is still a giant star so the lack of media attention on his arrival in Monaco is somewhat surprising. An improved showing in the principality is sure to increase the spotlight on the 30-year-old Serbian.
What about Stan Wawrinka? The Swiss, whose name was absent from the Monte Carlo entry list, is recovering from a long-term knee injury and has been training on the clay in anticipation for his scheduled return in Madrid. Wawrinka, the 2015 French Open champion, has top pedigree on clay and his return to court in time for the French Open will be welcomed by tennis fans.
Could Andy Murray return ahead of schedule? After hip surgery in January, Murray looked toward the grass court season as his targeted return, but reports suggested he could be back sooner. However, it makes little sense for the former world No 1 to rush his way back when it could jeopardise his Wimbledon chances. We can safely rule him out.
Thiem’s time to shine?
With the old-guard absent, injured or struggling, Nadal appears unopposed to continue racking up the clay court records. However, Dominic Thiem might have a thing or two to say about that.
The Austrian has emerged as the second-best clay court player in the world and was the only person to beat Nadal last season. Thiem has an injury concern of his own having not played since sustaining a small ankle fracture at Indian Wells, but it appears to be a minor problem and he should be fit and firing in time for the French Open. Seven of Thiem’s nine titles have come on clay and if anyone is to stop Nadal’s clay court clean sweep, the world No 7 is the best equipped.
Beyond Thiem, Germany's world No 4 Alexander Zverev – the defending Rome Masters champion – will have ambitions of adding to his six titles over the next few weeks, while the ATP Tour's form player, Juan Martin Del Potro, has said he is aiming to complete the full clay swing. Belgium's world No 10 David Goffin, recovered from a freak eye injury, should also be considered a contender.
Nadal will, as ever, be the man to beat, but Thiem and Co will be going all out to topple the king.