Photo: Rio Open/FotoJump|||Pho|Photo: Jared Wickerham/BNP Paribas Open|Photo: ATP Tour|

Tennis’ most picturesque surface is also its most taxing.

The clay-court season is upon us, which means a few things are certain: 1) lung-busting rallies, 2) stunning tennis photography, and 3) “Who can beat Rafael Nadal?”

Indeed, when it comes to men’s tennis, the question is always who can compete with the King of Clay, who took home three of the clay-court swing’s four top prizes. Yet the women’s side is equally as intriguing: Can reigning Roland Garros champion Simona Halep reassert herself as the WTA’s foremost clay courter? Or will the likes of World No. 1 Naomi Osaka and Petra Kvitova find solutions on a surface adverse to their respective styles?

We asked a panel of experts, including several former (and current!) players as well as Canada’s foremost sports journalists, what their predictions were for the upcoming clay season – and here’s what they came up with.

In this edition of ‘Experts Corner’ we’ll shine the spotlight on Sportsnet’s own Arash Madani, getting the low-down on his selections.

In terms of Canadian players, Arash thinks Félix Auger-Aliassime will perform the best during the clay season. The 18-year-old – who reached the Miami Open semi-finals, becoming the youngest player in the tournament’s history to do so – heads to Monte-Carlo this week with plenty of belief. On his selection, Arash commented:

“The decision to go to South America after Davis Cup really paid off for him, and the confidence he gained on the dirt will help him tremendously. He won’t have to go through ‘quallies’ now, either, which is such a massive advantage.”

Arash is joined by Sharon Fichman, Caroline Cameron and Frédéric Niemeyer in predicting a successful time on clay for Auger-Aliassime, while Tom Tebbutt and Aleksandra Wozniak are backing BNP Paribas Open champion Bianca Andreescu to be the most successful Canadian player on the surface.

Photo: Jared Wickerham/BNP Paribas Open

Moving on, Arash is confident we’ll see a change at the top of the WTA Tour rankings by the time the clay season comes to a close. Osaka might be at the summit right now, but along with Caroline, Frédéric and Aleksandra, Arash thinks Petra Kvitova will overtake the 21-year-old. He said:

“She has a real chance to do some damage, especially with pressure on Halep and Stephens to make another run to the French Open final. When Kvitova is playing loose and free, she is still one of the most dangerous players on tour – and she has a chance to do exactly that over the next six weeks.”

Meanwhile, Tom expects Elina Svitolina to oust Osaka at the top of the rankings, while Sharon thinks the Japanese with retain her World No. 1 credentials.

Photo: ATP Tour

Now to the burning question: Who can top Rafa?

Four of our experts – Sharon, Tom, Frédéric and Aleksandra – are all backing current men’s World No. 1 Novak Djokovic to beat out the King of Clay, while Caroline thinks Indian Wells champ Dominic Thiem will be the man to knock Nadal off his perch.

Arash, though, has other ideas. He’s predicting that, if anyone, Argentine Diego Schwartzman will cause an upset. Schwartzman was beaten by Nadal in the quarter-finals of last year’s French Open. Arash said:

“I convinced myself last spring that if not for the rain delay at Roland Garros last year, Diego would have beaten him then. Schwartzman was rolling, and he is such a pitbull out on-court. Just unrelenting.”

(Feature photo: Rio Open/FotoJump)