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Why you should be excited about this year’s tennis clay court swing

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Channel the Martians. 

They arrive at the Monte Carlo Country Club or at Madrid’s Caja Magica in April, or they touch down at the Foro Italica in Rome or Roland Garros in Paris in May. They see humans chasing a fuzzy yellow ball around rectangles of red dust. They quickly send word back to headquarters.

Seriously, they’re just like us… attempting to figure out who this Rafa character is that everyone keeps talking about… apparently some sort of deity… more soon.”

In America, except for the super-serious tennis fans in Texas and South Carolina, the crack of baseballs on bats heralds the spring. In Europe, and for tennis fans everywhere, it’s the swoosh of shoes sliding across all that ground-up red brick and the soft “pop” of that fuzzy yellow ball bouncing off the dirt. 

Here comes the clay. This is Part I of tennis on the organic surfaces: a little more than two months of terracotta attrition; rallies that go on and on and on and on; and socks so saturated with the red crumbs that they sometimes get tossed in the garbage instead of the washing machine.


The clay court season is upon us (Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)

It’s a glorious time of year. The grass of Centre Court at Wimbledon may deliver an unmatched sense of peace when the eyes come upon it, either in person or on television, but is there anything in the sport that hits more than the burnt orange of a freshly swept clay court when the bright sun of a European afternoon catches it just right?

For some players, it’s the next shot at a new start. For those who thrive in the dirt, the Casper Ruuds and Iga Swiateks of the world, stepping onto clay after three months of hard courts is like coming home. It’s also a journey back in time, as electronic line-calling goes away, replaced by umpires descending from their chairs to study the ball marks that tell the tale of in or out. 

Here’s what we are looking out for as tennis in its dirtiest version gets underway.


El Rey

Any discussion of clay court tennis has to begin with Rafael Nadal, the so-called King of Clay, the winner of 1,468 French Open singles titles – OK, it’s actually just 14. 

Nadal has essentially been sidelined with a series of injuries around his problematic left hip since the 2023 Australian Open. He attempted to come back in January but suffered another injury after three matches. He played an exhibition match in early March in Las Vegas, then pulled out of Indian Wells, presumably to get into optimal shape for his beloved clay.


Nadal is a doubt for the French Open (Aurelien Morissard/Xinhua via Getty Images)

Then he pulled out of this week’s tournament in Monte Carlo — one of his favorites and his most successful event other than the French Open. 

“These are very difficult moments for me, sporting-wise,” Nadal wrote on social media. “You have no idea how hard it is for me not to play these events.” 

The use of the plural “events” was troubling. How many more? 

Nadal’s participation, even in a somewhat diminished form, changes the math in any clay court tournament. He will celebrate his 38th birthday in June, in the middle of the French Open, but if he is doing his sliding and heaving and curling forehands in Paris, it will be a can’t-miss event.

 But will he or won’t he? Is this the end?

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The next Rafa?

Iga Swiatek has a ways to go before she gets into Rafa territory. That said, she has won three of the last four French Opens. She’s still only 22. This could go on for quite some time. 

Swiatek has made no secret of her worship of Nadal and her game on clay excels for the same reason his does. The surface gives her those extra split seconds to hunt her powerful forehand and it pops the ball right into her strike zone. 

She hasn’t been the banker this year that she has been at certain points in her career. Big hitters have taken her out in Australia and Miami.  

Then again, she was undefeated on red clay in the spring of 2022. Last year she won two of her four tournaments during the spring clay season and made the final of a third (Madrid). She has an aura on the clay that she doesn’t have anywhere else; the only question now is how big will it grow.


Swiatek has won three of the last four French Opens (Julien De Rosa/AFP via Getty Images)

Stefanos 2.0?

Stefanos Tsitsipas has played so far below the promise of his career the past 10 months, even the promise of early last year when he made the final of the Australian Open. 

He has won just one tournament since then, in Los Cabos last summer, which is not exactly the destination of choice for the best of the best. His last four Grand Slams have been quarterfinals, fourth round, second round, fourth round. This was a player who was a one-time heir apparent, a Tour Finals champion at 20 years old.  

Tsitsipas is a beautiful watch on just about any surface, but clay is where the grace and dynamism of his game really takes off. He slides as well as anyone and just genuinely enjoys the dance that is tennis in the dirt. Too often during these down months, he’s let players pick on his one-handed backhand, which is as flashy as ever, but he can struggle to get on top of the big, high-bouncing forehands of the best players. He has struggled to keep the game simple, to bully opponents with his big serve and forehand the way he did during the best stretches of his career.

Now he is back in the dirt again. Perhaps most importantly for one of the more outwardly philosophical players on the tour, he sees the restorative opportunities of the surface. He speaks longingly of the days when he swept his own court and has compared watching a messy court swept clean at the end of a set to a “cleansing of the soul.” 

The Greek has tumbled out of the top 10, but speaking with him in Indian Wells last month, the brightness and optimism was all still there. The clay is his best chance to come alive once more. 


Will Sabalenka get her Porsche?

That may be the most mundane of questions when it comes to Aryna Sabalenka, the two-time Australian Open champion and world No 2.

Last month, Sabalenka’s former boyfriend, Konstantin Koltsov, fell to his death in what Miami police have ruled an apparent suicide. Though Sabalenka and Koltsov were no longer together, she referred to his death as an “unspeakable tragedy.” She and her tight-knit team have been working hard to move on but to also grieve.

It’s not clear what state of mind Sabalenka will be in when she plays the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart, but she has made no secret of her desire to collect one of the great prizes in the sport — the Porsche near the main court where the players compete. Some years it’s a Boxster, some years it’s a Carrera, last year it was a Taycan.

Sabalenka can no doubt afford to buy a Porsche. She wants to win one, though. After losing to Swiatek in the final last year, she pretended to smash the windshield with the runner-up trophy.

Sabalenka was a point away from the French Open final last year before losing to Karolina Muchova. She can play on the clay and beat Swiatek in Madrid last year. A new Porsche would be a nice kickstart to her 2024 clay season. 


Jannik Sinner’s next step

Jannik Sinner is the best player in the world right now. He doesn’t rate himself all that highly on clay.

“Usually I struggle there,” he said recently.

And yet the first time most people heard of Sinner was when he made the French Open quarters in 2020. 

He’s beaten basically everyone great on hard courts the past year. Can this version of Sinner translate to clay? There’s no reason it shouldn’t. He’s a magical mover. His fitness is right up there now. This season could be the missing piece that assuages any doubts about the completeness of his game — even if most of the world doesn’t have any of those doubts left.

We’ve bought in. Has he?  


Can power thrive on the soft stuff? 

Short answer, probably not. Ask Pete Sampras.

That said, Ben Shelton and Danielle Collins, both big hitters, won clay court tournaments in Houston and Charleston last week.


Danielle Collins won the Miami Open in March (Elsa/Getty Images)

The wins come with fat asterisks. The red clay in Houston and the green stuff in Charleston play differently than the real deal. Also, both draws lacked the best players, especially those who skipped them to get more time on the authentic European stuff where they thrive.

And yet, there was something about the way Shelton played, almost defying the clay rather than adapting his power game to it, that whet the appetite for his second journey through European dirt. He barely played on the stuff as a junior or in college. 

Given his power, Shelton vs the clay is irresistible force vs. immovable object territory. He is big and fast and strong with a left arm that can hit through any court… Maybe. If he can figure out how to move on clay — and he’s working on it — there are fun times ahead. 

Collins, meanwhile, has rivalled Sinner for that current best player in the world title during the past month, winning the Miami Open, the biggest trophy of her career, and then following that up last week with another in Charleston in what she says will be her final season. The efforts earned her more than $1million in prize money and 1,500 rankings points.

Clay is supposed to be Kryptonite for a big hitter like Collins. She will lose at some point. But when? She’s absolutely wrecked most of her opponents in the past three weeks. Right now, other than Swiatek, she’s the name no one wants to see next to theirs in a draw.


I am keeping an eye on…

  1. Novak Dkokovic flying solo. He fired his longtime coach, Goran Ivanisevic, last month. He hasn’t named a permanent replacement and is going it alone for now. Will he yell at an empty chair in his box when things go south?
  2. Mirra Andreeva. Clay is where the 16-year-old Russian broke out last year, but she has only played two matches since her loss in the Australian Open. She pulled out of Miami with arm tendonitis.
  3. Matteo Berrettini on the comeback road. He won a title in Morocco last week on clay but then looked lost on the surface in a flat defeat to Miomir Kecmanovic in Monte Carlo. Still, winning a clay title at all is impressive for a power player, especially one on the way back from injuries like those that the Italian has suffered. A solid campaign would set him up very well for the grass, where he has thrived when healthy.
  4. Ons Jabeur. Because no one can make a ball dance on clay like she can.
  5. Gael Monfils at the French Open. He’s healthy and getting fitter by the moment. It might be the loudest tennis match of the year — something he achieved in five sets on one leg against Sebastian Baez last year at Roland Garros, when cheers from a whipped-up home crowd could be heard a mile away.
  6. Carlos Alcaraz’s sore right forearm.

Four predictions sure to age poorly… 

  1. Coco Gauff wins the French Open. She made the final two years ago. People underestimate her on clay because she is American. Bad idea, especially with Brad Gilbert teaching her how to win ugly by making matches physical and the clay giving her extra time on her forehand.
  2. Djokovic wins the French Open. The world has said it’s the era of Sinner and Alcaraz. Djokovic says he’s the best clay court player not named Rafael Nadal. He’s right.
  3. Alcaraz wins Madrid. Madrid for him will be what Monte Carlo has been for Nadal, where he gets his red clay roll going, for a while.
  4. People will be talking about Tomas Machac of the Czech Republic a lot by June, wondering where the 23-year-old and his shortest of shorts have been all this time.

Don’t forget to leave your predictions in the comments.

(Top photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

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