The European clay-court swing began in surprising fashion last week when the final in Monte Carlo – one of the most prestigious and picturesque stops on the ATP Tour – was contested by Dusan Lajovic and Fabio Fognini, two men who had never come close to lifting a trophy at that level before.
This outcome was all the more unexpected because Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic were in the draw. But Djokovic lost to Daniil Medvedev in the quarter-finals while Nadal was beaten by eventual champion Fognini in the semi-finals. At one point, with the Italian holding three match points at 5-0 in the second set, it looked probable that Nadal would suffer his first ‘bagel’ on clay since 2007. He managed to avoid that fate, but it was still unnerving to see the 11-time French Open champion look so powerless on his favourite surface.
On The Tennis Podcast, presenters Catherine Whitaker (Amazon Prime, Eurosport) and David Law (BT Sport, BBC 5 Live) break down those defeats for Nadal and Djokovic, and discuss their current situations, concluding that while there is cause for concern, they should still be considered the strong favourites for next month’s French Open.
The threat of injury has always loomed large over Nadal’s career, but it’s intensified recently, with several injuries forcing him to skip a number of hard-court events over the last eighteen months. The one period of stability for Nadal has traditionally come during the clay-court swing, where the surface underfoot takes less of a toll on his body and he’s able to play a full schedule.
But Whitaker points out that the stop-start nature of his last six months, culminating in his withdrawal from Miami in March, has affected his preparation for the clay in 2019. While Nadal’s form in Monte Carlo has often set the tone for the rest of his clay-court swing - he’s won the event 11 times and then gone on to win Roland Garros in the same year on nine occasions - this year it could take him a little longer to build up the strength and confidence he needs to play his best tennis.
“His brow was furrowed and he was really soul-searching after that match [against Fognini]”, says Whitaker. “What he seemed to be implying was that a series of injuries had prevented him from training as he would like, playing matches as he would like, and getting into the groove that he wants to be in. It’s a cumulative effect and he feels undercooked in a really big way. He needs to get on a roll.”
“I’m not writing him off. He is still my favourite for the French Open. But I’m also not saying that this was a one-off bad week in a vacuum, and Nadal isn’t saying that either. Something needs to change for him to become the Nadal that we saw on clay last year.”
Novak Djokovic’s situation is quite different. After his dominant run to the Australian Open title in January, most people expected him to sweep all before him in the lead-up to the French Open, where he will attempt to win a fourth consecutive Grand Slam for the second time in his career. Instead, he has lost before the semi-finals in each of his last three tournaments, with all of those defeats coming against players ranked outside of the Top 10. His distracted demeanour has been reminiscent of what it was like when he won just two titles between September 2016 and June 2018.
But Law and Whitaker both point out that Djokovic’s priorities appear to have changed. In the past, Djokovic peaked at almost every event, turning up each week with the same intensity and drive when he was at his best. This helped him become the first man in history to win all nine Masters 1000 events in singles.
There is a sense now, however, that Djokovic, who turns 32 next month, might be narrowing his focus and targeting the Grand Slams more deliberately, and that this realigning of priorities could be the reason for his less impressive form outside of the biggest events.
“Maybe he’s a bit weary again of the relentless of the Tour”, says Law. “When you’ve won everything the way he has, it would stand to reason that you would have a little bit of world weariness about it all and about the grind.”
“What is really going to define him from here until the end of his career are going to be the records that he doesn’t have yet. There are four months between the Australian Open and the French Open, that’s a long time to stay up and motivated, and I don’t know whether he can do that anymore. I still think he will click back into gear at some point before Roland Garros.”
There is certainly no need for Nadal and Djokovic fans to panic. Their results are actually in keeping with a recent trend on the ATP Tour: while the Grand Slams continue to be dominated by the Big Three – Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have split the last nine evenly – new winners are beginning to emerge more frequently at Masters 1000 level. Since Rome in 2017, players such as Jack Sock, John Isner, Karen Khachanov, Grigor Dimitrov and Alexander Zverev have all picked up their first titles at this level, but been unable to reproduce the winning form on the Grand Slam stage.
Nadal and Djokovic will probably find their feet in the next few weeks, but even if they don’t, they will remain the players to beat at Roland Garros and beyond.
The Tennis Podcast is produced weekly throughout the year and daily at the Grand Slam tournaments, in association with Telegraph Sport. This episode also discusses Great Britain’s Fed Cup victory over Kazakhstan.