The boys looking to halt Rafa at Roland Garros

No Federer or Andy and Stan and Novak aren’t near challenging yet so who is a real challenge to Rafael Nadal on the clay?

It has been an intriguing clay court season so far which has seen some much needed performances from players needing it and two who have shone are Dominic Thiem and Alex Zverev.

Dominic Thiem’s March didn’t go to plan after picking up an ankle injury this meant he had to skip Miami and put his clay court preparations on the back foot. His performances in Monte Carlo weren’t great however you can’t complain as it was a first tournament back and then in Barcelona the same before he started to perform in Madrid with some incredible wins, one of which against Rafa and now he looks like that win has given him belief in Paris.

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Alex Zverev made all the headlines for the wrong reason early in the season with stories going around about a split with his coach but he has got on with his tennis impressively!

Performances have been very good, the way he approaches matches reminds me of Andy Murray in the way that he confidently goes about his game but with the respect of what his opponent can offer!

Madrid saw him pick up his third Masters 1000 title and on clay, he hasn’t done it yet at a major so really there is a lot of pressure to recreate his current form on a big stage.

Can they? Of course they can! I think Zverev has better game management which is where Thiem needs to improve in early rounds as sometimes he can get stuck in battles he shouldn’t have to battle too much in but then is almost flawless against top players but can take it out of him.

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Rafa reigns in Rome after rain delay!

The tour’s greatest gladiator is at it again. In one of the greatest cities in the world Rafael Nadal rose from the ruins to reign again after what turned out to be a decisive rain delay.

The challenge was mighty but if anyone is capable of it then it is Nadal who took home his 8th title in Rome ahead of Roland Garros.

The world number one got rolled out of the second set by a very impressive Alex Zverev who has had an incredible season with the German No.1 taking the set 6-1 followed by a 3-1 lead in the third set before the gods loomed over the Foro Italico which brought a rain delay.

After the delay it was all one way traffic as Rafa just went for it reeling off 5 games in a row to secure another title his third of the clay court season ahead of Roland Garros against one of his biggest threats!

The rain delay proved pivotal without it we could be sat here talking about a massive win for Alex Zverev ahead of the second major of the year but we can’t work and talk about what could have been, what happened is fact.

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Foro Italico thoughts ahead of Roland Garros

The final big warm up before Roland Garros sees the top players from the world head to the Foro Italico in Rome to finish off their preparations and aim to reign supreme in one of the worlds most beautiful cities.

I have been a bit quiet on everything this week as I have been in Barcelona for the week hence why I am doing a round up of findings from the week but there will be a number of exciting pieces coming out ahead of what is set to be an exciting Roland Garros but Rome first!

Why Stan?

When I heard Wawrinka was in Rome I was surprised, he lost in straight sets to Steve Johnson and it would be unfair to even look at the performance but I thought he would go straight to Geneva to practice and defend his title there? It’s good to see Stan back and it will take a while to get rhythm which could take a few months especially with three surface changes over the next 7 weeks so finding comfort on the knee is priority.

Sharapova’s best form since returning

100%! The former world number one has found some of her best tennis in Rome. The slow court has allowed her time on the ball something she hasn’t been getting over the last few weeks on clay.

Courts at Roland Garros can be similar but it does depend on conditions and watering which we have seen before. I think it’s good for Sharapova in this form but honestly I don’t see her contending for the title. The FFT denied Sharapova a wildcard last year so I don’t think they will be rushing to put her on Chatrier or Longlen.

Dom heading to Paris? Nope…

After what has been a good clay court season for Dominic Thiem the Austrian suffered an early exit in Rome so you’d have thought he would head to Paris to begin preparing but is instead going to play in Lyon at a 250 event and I don’t know why.

He isn’t short of match practice just a bad defeat and his performances in Monte Carlo and Madrid so soon after injury were very good so I hope going to Lyon doesn’t burn him out.

Worried for Woz?

Caro’s form has been consistent in the way that in all of her clay court tournaments she has won two matches and lost the third but when she has lost it is a thrashing.

Caro surprisingly has never found consistency on clay despite her game being well suited. Roland Garros is statistically her worst major with a win percentage of 64% but was her best performance last year making the quarter finals.

Caro does have points to defend and as second seed she should definitely be in the second week but has struggled against big hitters these last few weeks like Kasatkina and Bertens.

Kei good but good enough?

Kei Nishikori has also played one of his best tournaments of the year. Finalist in Monte-Carlo and quarter finalist in Rome he has come into form however that form dramatically dropped against Djokovic which is a concern!

Can he do it over 5 sets? I don’t think right now he is up to it physically. It is good to see him playing some stunning tennis but after set one it became a fatigued performance and he was a passenger which is a concern over three sets let alone best of 5 tournament.

Novak in form!

We haven’t been able to say it much this season but Novak has shown great form over this week. Frustration was a big part of his performance against Nadal and it was great to see that frustration!

You might think well frustration shows something is up but it’s good to see Novak with that spark in his personality and game on the court again. His performance against Rafa was better.

Physically he was moving better and hitting the ball harder with control. More challenges will follow but I will be greatly surprised if he doesn’t make the second week of Paris.

Thiem 7-5 6-3 Nadal – a masterclass against the clay king!

A masterclass.

No one had beaten Nadal on clay for almost a year, the last person was Dominic Thiem back in Rome but in Madrid the 50 consecutive sets won on a single surface came to an end as the world number one was put to the sword by the Austrian.

Dominic is so talented on the clay and we saw this as he took Rafa apart.

Getting time against Rafa on clay is super difficult but Thiem did it perfectly by playing it his own game. Rafa is the master at hitting those powerful and bouncy forehand and backhand strokes with top spin down the court and it gave him time.

Thiem was doing this to Rafa and it meant the Spaniard could only hit a short return and this set Thiem up to back up into that inside-out forehand position you can see highlighted above and he’d then wait until the last moment before deciding to pull it down the line or cross court leaving Rafa on the back foot very quickly and once Thiem got into this position and used his forehand to take control.

This performance from Thiem was everything you could have wished for. It was well thought out and he gave absolutely everything to take this win, a win which firmly puts him in the bracket of Roland Garros contender and I think he should look at using these tactics in earlier rounds as you don’t want to be hanging around too long in early matches of a big tournament.

Obviously Thiem went onto lose the final to Zverev, I think his game plan wasn’t great. I would have liked to have seen him utilise the flat backhand down the line a bit more as the forehand against the two handed backhand of Zverev the German could afford to backhand and still be competitive.

I also do believe that physically it took it out of him having just come back from injury and has been very impressive!

Madrid Madness! Del Po stunned, Sharapova + Halep out, Thiem announces himself and business as usual for No.1

Well, Wednesday has proved a manic day in Madrid. As the week goes on the draw shortens and nothing like it has done today with big names out, future stars shining and the usual suspects up to their tricks!

Thiem has announced himself!

Dominic Thiem had to do it this week, no excuses. He has now set up a meeting with Nadal and it will be a good marker to see how far he is away from Rafa as right now he is his biggest challenger on this surface.

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Down a set and a break with Coric serving for the match the Austrian produced some inspired and hard fought tennis something we haven’t seen as he continues to return from this ankle injury a few months back but it was there and with the win announced his arrival on the clay court season.

Del Po out!

Usually he is the man you can rely on in tight situations and when he found himself 4-0 up in the third set tie-breaker that did look like that however Lajovic who deserves a lot of credit won 7 of the next 8 points to secure the biggest win of his career.

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You can see from the graphic from when he took set two that he stepped up his performance by retreating behind the baseline further and soaking up the pressure of Del Potro’s ground strokes, as they say sometimes the best attack is defence and it proved for the Serb.

Halep and Sharapova out!

Well this was a surprise.

Karolina Pliskova is surprising us all on the clay courts winning once again…ย  with her title in Stuttgart and what she has done so far this week in Madrid against Halep as well has thrown her name into a hat of Roland Garros contenders as she looks like she’s playing without pressure.

Sharapova is out. I’m not terribly surprised, she had a good week with a couple of decent wins but Kiki Bertens is a pain to play against, she hangs on in there and just goes for it and credit to her for wins over Sharapova and Wozniacki this week.

50!

Rafael Nadal doesn’t usually sit at the bottom of a piece I write but save the best to last. 50 consecutive sets of tennis won on a single surface, absolutely magnificent! A new record taking over John McEnroe’s 49 on carpet.

 

Who will light up the Caja Mรกgica?

The Mutua Madrid Open is a staple event on the tour. 2018 celebrates 10 years as a WTA tournament and 22 years as an ATP tournament. Madrid has seen the biggest names in sport lift the trophy but who will be crowned champion in just over a week’s time?

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Rafael Nadal

Well, there isn’t really anywhere else to begin. Nadal has been champion 5 times here during his career and his form so far this clay court season has been flawless. I don’t really see who could provide a massive challenge to him. Kei Nishikori and Dominic Thiem were in good form in Monte-Carlo and got walked-over by the world number one and I can’t see anything but him winning.

Alex Zverev

After a tricky few months the German has seemed to have found his feet this season. Currently playing at home in Munich he will provide a challenge for some going forward in Madrid and Rome. The courts in Madrid are usually quite slow and that will suit the way Alex likes to play from the baseline.

Hyeon Chung

Hyeon had to withdraw from Barcelona a week ago but the Australian Open semi-finalist has gone far in every tournament he has played this week and that goes the same for Munich so far. His game is good to watch, he can take it to you or can defend. His performance against Novak Djokovic in Melbourne was by far one of my favourite of the year, the way he moved around the court and utilised his ground strokes effectively.

Dominic Thiem

If Dominic is to be considered a contender for Roland Garros he needs a good week here or in Rome. This recent ankle injury has halted his momentum but he did look strong in Monte Carlo before a short trip to Barcelona which in hindsight he maybe shouldn’t have taken. Dominic last year was the only player to beat Rafa on clay but to do that this year he will need to build up form quickly.

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Simona Halep

The world number one. No one has been in more Madrid finals than the Romanian. A former finalist in 2014 she returned to win the tournament in 2016 and 2017 but will history repeat in 2018?

The conditions are perfect for Halep when she is on her game. Her performances in Stuttgart which saw her leave early will be a concern with little freedom in her game at the moment but the conditions will allow her more time to grind out points but she can’t waste the time on court.

Victoria Azarenka

It is Vika’s first tournament on the travels with her son Leo.

It’s great to see the former finalist back in Madrid, Vika had been practicing a lot on clay after the sunshine double came to an end and I do think she will go deep here. As an unseeded player she does pose a threat to big seeds early on and a potential round two match with Karolina Pliskova is on the cards!

Garbine Muguruza

Muguruza surprised me by going to Monterrey after Miami however she won the tournament there but has struggled with form and fitness this year withdrawing from three tournaments already isn’t a good sign.

At home in Spain there will be added pressure for the third seed who has a tough opponent in Peng Shuai first and maybe Vekic or Garcia Perez in round two.

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Marta Kostyuk

The Ukranian has made a few headlines on the WTA tour this year. At the age of just 15 she is ranked 134 in the world and comes into Madrid as a wildcard against another wildcard in the experienced Spaniard Lara Arruabarrena.

Marta has had a few top 100 wins this year against Peng Shuai, Daria Gavrilova and more recently Alize Cornet in qualifying in Stuttgart where she made it to the second round before losing to Caroline Garcia.

There is no pressure on her at all and she has shown with her tennis she isn’t afraid to go for it and can cause issues for Lara.

Undecima en Barcelona!

The gift that keeps on giving.

Rafael Nadal has now won 46 consecutive sets of tennis on clay after picking up another title in Barcelona. The world number one has been as ruthless as ever on the clay court so far this year. Wins against Klizan (who defeated Djokovic), Goffin and in the final the youngster Tsitsipas to seal another big week which saw him win his 400th career clay court win becoming the only player on the tour to have won 400+ matches on two separate surfaces.

I do feel like I am just repeating myself at the moment. You can only watch with pure admiration what this man is doing at the moment and I stand by something I said not long ago, I truly do believe he is playing better than he ever has before in his career!

The intensity and drive just doesn’t stop and over the next week I will be looking at his forehand and backhand and why I believe it is better than ever!

For now, celebrations! Well done Rafa!

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