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Home   News   Tebbutt: A dirty time of year

Tebbutt: A dirty time of year

May 16, 2017
written by: Tom Tebbutt
written by: Tom Tebbutt

After a month and a half of the women’s and men’s tours being on clay, Rafael Nadal has easily proved himself to be the maestro of dirt-ball tennis.

The 30-year-old Majorcan has been untouchable on red clay in winning 15 matches in a row and racking up titles in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid.

Nobody else on the men’s or women’s tour has won more than one tournament on clay. Only Dominic Thiem (win in Rio, finals in Barcelona and Madrid) and Pablo Carreno Busta (win in Marrakech and runner-up in Rio) among the men and Kristina Mladenovic (finalist in Stuttgart and Madrid) and Francesca Schiavone (winner Bogota and finalist Rabat) have been in more than one final.

Nadal’s impeccable record so far has made him the prohibitive favourite to win his record-setting 10th Roland Garros (breaking his own mark) on the final day – June 11th.

There was a bit of a side-story on Sunday, after Nadal defeated Thiem 7-6(8), 6-4 in the Madrid final, that he may have had a knee injury and have been limping post-match. “No, physically I’m feeling fit,” he insisted. “It’s logical that after a hard week – I’ve been playing a lot of matches, a lot of hours out there on the court. I feel like it’s sore, a little bit tired. Because I’m not walking perfectly doesn’t mean I have an injury. I’m just a little bit sore, tight. I’m 31 years old (on June 3rd). That’s all.”

Last year, when he went to Rome and was beaten in the quarter-finals 7-5, 7-6(4) by Novak Djokovic after losing in the semifinals in Madrid, there was a left wrist issue that eventually forced him to withdraw from the French Open in the third round.

“If I don’t go to Italy, it doesn’t guarantee that I will be in better shape in Roland Garros,” Nadal said in Madrid on Sunday about his current situation. “Last year perhaps I made a few mistakes. I made a mistake going to Rome. My wrist was injured here, then I went to Barcelona to have a checkup. They said everything was fine, my wrist was fine. They said I could go to Rome. I think it was a bad decision.”

The Rome draw looks challenging for him with a debut on Wednesday against fellow Spaniard Nicolas Almagro, a potential second match against Jack Sock, probably Thiem in the quarter-finals and then possibly Djokovic or Juan Martin del Potro in the semifinals.

It has to always be hard for Nadal to skip an event on clay because he’s so dominant on the surface, and well-rewarded in terms of ranking points. Currently, of the 5,195 points that make him the world’s No. 4-ranked player, 49.8 per cent of those come from clay events – and they make up only five of his total of 14 counting tournaments. Included in that point total is the quarter-final from Rome last year and that third-round forced exit from the 2016 French Open.

So he definitely has room for improvement over the next four weeks.

As for competition, the 23-year-old Thiem (above) has been impressive and the next best in-form player. This week’s Italian Open will give him and other potential threats for the Roland Garros title – Djokovic, Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka etc. – a chance to gain some momentum and stake a claim.

The news on Monday that Roger Federer will not play Roland Garros probably doesn’t change much. It was widely known that he was apprehensive about playing on clay after having some troubling sensations with his newly-operated-on left knee in Monte Carlo and Rome a year ago. As well, while he was sensational at the Australian Open in January after six months off to rehab his body, he did struggle in his two first matches at Melbourne Park– not looking sharp in a 7-5, 3-6, 6-2, 6-2 win over No. 300 Jurgen Melzer in the first round and a 7-5, 6-3, 7-6(3) victory against No. 200 Noah Rubin in the second round.

Going in cold on clay at Roland Garros – and with no tournaments of any kind for two months – he would have been vulnerable right from the get-go.

While it’s all Nadal on the men’s side of things heading toward the French Open, it is quite the contrary with the women.

Photo: sportsration.com

Even if Simona Halep, a 7-5, 6-7(5), 6-2 winner over Mladenovic in the Madrid final on Saturday, has been established as the Roland Garros favourite by London bookmaker Ladbrokes at 9-2 – Maria Sharapova is 6-1, obviously that was before the FFT decided not to award her a wild card, Garbiñe Muguruza is 11-1 and Angelique Kerber is 12-1 – the women’s game is without anything close to a dominant player at the moment.

The tweet here shows that only seven times so far in the 2017 season have Top 10 players faced each other. That certainly says something about how infrequently the perceived best players are getting through to final rounds of tournaments.

By comparison there have been approximately 16 matches between Top 10 players on the men’s tour – and that number is slightly skewed down by situations such as the fact that Roger Federer was ranked No. 17 when he beat No. 4 Stan Wawrinka and No. 9 Nadal at the Australian Open.

Major disappointments on the WTA tour have been Angelique Kerber, who returns to No. 1 next week in Serena Williams’ absence, and Muguruza.

Last week Muguruza, who has lost in the opening round of her first two clay-court events this spring, didn’t sound very convincing when she said the following about being the defending champion at Roland Garros, “ everybody is telling me pressure, no pressure. I’m sure I have some responsibility being the defending champion, but other than that, no.”

So Roland Garros 2017 sure looks wide open, and that includes for Genie Bouchard who showed positive signs last week in Madrid where she defeated Alizé Cornet, Sharapova and Kerber before exiting – 6-4, 6-0 – to a top-shelf display by Svetlana Kuznetsova.

Currently with the London bookmakers, Bouchard is tied for the 15th pick to win in Paris with odds of 33-1.

GENIE AND MILOS

After her quarter-final in Madrid last week, which moved her ranking up from No. 60 to No. 52, Genie Bouchard is taking this week off before playing the WTA International Series event in Nuremberg, Germany, next week. It will be a homecoming of sorts for Bouchard who earned her only tournament title there in 2014 – defeating Karolina Pliskova 6-2, 4-6, 6-3 in the final.

It was quite a remarkable renaissance for Bouchard last week in Madrid. The explanation, in her own words, went as follows: “I just really found out my true team I can rely on – tried to really realize what was going on mentally, feeling the pressures. Even though I was losing matches, I still felt pressure to win matches. But then I thought to myself, ‘well, I’ve lost like five first rounds in a row, I should have nothing to lose.’ I tried to change my mentality a little bit, and to also just stop worrying about external things.”

Next week should offer evidence of her ability to sustain last week’s much improved level of play.

Photo by: Peter Figura

As for Milos Raonic, he will make his debut at the Italian Open in Rome on Wednesday against the winner of a match begin Tommy Haas and lucky loser Ernesto Escobedo. The latter got into the draw when Ivo Karlovic had to withdraw with a back injury – something that could make things easier for Raonic who is 1-1 vs. the Croatian giant, including a 7-6(1), 7-6(1) loss at the 2015 Rogers Cup in Montreal when Raonic himself had back issues.

Further down the road, the fifth-seeded Raonic could face No. 12 Tomas Berdych in the third round and probably one of No. 1 Andy Murray, Fabio Fognini or No. 16 Sascha Zverev in the quarter-finals.

“This is one of the clay-court tournaments where the courts are a little bit smaller,” Raonic said in an ATP interview referring to the overall court dimensions in Rome, “so it definitely helps me in that way. And when the sun’s out it plays a little bit quicker. So those are positive things for me in trying to take my game and be more aggressive toward my opponents.”

Raonic had his best showing at a Masters 1000-level event on clay in Rome in 2014 when he reached the semifinals and really pushed eventual winner and then world No. 2 Novak Djokovic before losing 6-7(5), 7-6(4), 6-3.

ROLAND GARROS QUALIFYING

There are expected to be five Canadians in the qualifying draws at the French Open.

They are No. 192 Francoise Abanda and No. 194 Bianca Andreescu, and no. 302 Aleksandra Wozniak in the women’s event and No. 132 Peter Polansky, No. 182 Steven Diez and No. 188 Denis Shapovalov among the men.

Qualifying begins Monday, May 22, and lasts until Friday May 26. Main draw action starts on Sunday May 28.

VASEK AND MOTHER’S DAY

Vasek Pospisil paid tribute to his mother Mila on Mother’s Day – although it certainly looks like he has grown a few inches since this picture was taken.

PICO RETIRES

Juan ‘Pico’ Monaco, the 33-year-old Argentine who won nine titles – all but one on clay – and reached a career-high ranking of No. 10 in 2012, has announced his retirement. A popular, personable guy on the tour, in the clip here Monaco shows some of his flair in one of the better ‘tweener’ shots ever hit.

IN OR OUT

This Tebbutt Tuesday guy has played a lot of tennis on clay courts just like the one here. Although 86 per cent in a poll related to the picture above voted that the ball was out, TT believes you have to call it in. The ball flattens out when it lands so who’s to say that at least a few tiny fibers on the ball didn’t touch the sideline. It’s too close to call so you have to give the benefit of the doubt to your opponent if it’s your call.