Longtime rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who met for the third time this year in the Miami Open final on Sunday, have both won 19 matches this season. Federer’s one loss compared to Nadal’s five, has meant that there has been contrasting silverware for them this season.
With three high profile trophies — Australian Open, Indian Wells and Miami — already under his belt, this is the best season since 2006 for Federer who has now climbed up to number 4 in the rankings. He is now set to take a 2-month breather on clay courts, and would not return to action till Roland Garros at the end of May.
Nadal, who has now lost four consecutive times to Federer following his 6-3, 6-4 loss in Miami, will look to finally win a title this year in the coming clay court surge starting with Monte Carlo in a week’s time. The Spaniard’s three runners-up showings — Australian Open, Acapulco and Miami — have demonstrated progress on his part. On two of those occasions he was simply undone by a rejuvenated Federer, who has taken the upper hand in the Fedal rivalry for the first time since they met in Miami back in 2004.
For Federer, whose only loss this season has come against Russian world No 116 Evgeny Donskoy in Dubai, taking time off on clay should be the pattern in the coming seasons – of which we believe he has at least three more after signing a deal with the Basel Open in his hometown. This rest should keep him fresh for Wimbledon and the US Open later this year, which would be the two tournaments he would want to be in peak shape for.
Ideally Federer would have wanted Wimbledon to be played next week. He would probably run through the field, being heads and shoulders above everyone right now, including Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic. How the top 2 in the world, along with Stan Wawrinka and Nadal perform on clay might put them in a different place by June.
The clay court season, of course, would be the most crucial for Nadal, who has owned the surface from 2005-14. While La Decima, the 10th Roland Garros title, would be his number one goal, he needs title wins in at least two of Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Rome and Madrid opens to be considered the overwhelming favourite for the French Open.
With Djokovic having already bagged the elusive Roland Garros to complete the career Grand Slam last year, Nadal’s toughest competitors might be Murray and Wawrinka this year.
Djokovic has had a prolonged slump since his Roland Garros title. And while this might motivate him for a strong performance on clay to bring his season on track, the World Number 2 would not relish the thought of having to do it all on his least preferred surface.
For Murray, the world’s top ranked player right now with a lead of 4,000 points over Djokovic, the clay court season might be the time to remind everyone that he still is the best player in the world. It is also a chance for him to win a major on all three surfaces to add to his two Wimbledon titles and the US Open.
Murray’s rise on clay has been steady over the past two years. He won the Madrid Open in 2015, beating Nadal in the final, and lost an epic 5-setter against Djokovic in the semifinal of Roland Garros. Last year he reached the semifinal in Monte Carlo, the final in Madrid, won Rome and lost the Roland Garros final. He might be the most motivated to go one better this year.
Wawrinka, who won Ronald Garros in 2015, has been consistently doing well at the majors. The US Open win last year was his third Grand Slam win in three years, after winning the Australian Open in 2014. He is now a Wimbledon win away from completing a Career Grand Slam of his own.
Apart from the top three, Next Gen stars Nick Kyrgios and Alexander Zverev might want further inroads closer to silverware after impressing on the hard courts. Although neither of them, along with Milos Raonic, have games best suited for the European clay courts.
All this makes Nadal the favourite for every clay court tournament he will play over the next two months. It is success on clay that usually helps Nadal get his winning groove back that helps him on other surfaces as well. So often on the right end of mental edge against Federer, it was that indomitable self-confidence that Nadal lacked against the Swiss in all their encounters this season.
On clay Nadal has the best chance to tilt successive losses against Federer (should they face off at Roland Garros) and Djokovic. Rafa needs titles over the next two months to not only ensure successes this year, but to give direction to the tail-end of his career as well.