The Top Storylines Heading Into the 2014 Clay-Court Season

Jeremy Eckstein@!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistApril 2, 2014

The Top Storylines Heading Into the 2014 Clay-Court Season

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    There's more to tennis than Rafael Nadal vs. Novak Djokovic, but forgive the world if that rivalry will once again be front and center for the clay-court season. After all, they each have more at stake in Europe than anywhere else. It's a collision course with no compromise.

    We will also examine the other ATP key contenders and circumstantial thoughts regarding their chances for excellent success over the next two months.

    On the women's tour, Serena Williams has picked up the gauntlet and seems as determined as ever to take on her biggest rivals. The problem for the others is that they have had little to no success in challenging her on the biggest stages.

    Clay-court tennis is here, and for all of its lazy bounces and relentless demands, it can be the true measure of heart and championship immortality. It can also be as inexplicably cruel as a mishandled overhead smash.

    What are the biggest stories and contenders that will capture the interests of springtime tennis? We're about to get the conversation started.

Which ATP Players Could Challenge for Clay-Court Spoils?

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    The reign of Rafael Nadal has made it seem all but impossible for other contenders. But perhaps Nadal is becoming mortal. His back injury in Australia showed he was human. He was handled at Indian Wells and Miami. Yes, he's coming home to clay, but other players might be sensing an opportunity to grab a piece of hardware.

    Tomas Berdych hits a clean ball. He nearly knocked off Novak Djokovic in the Monte Carlo semifinals two years ago in windy conditions that made it seem like swatting flies in a sandstorm. He also gave Nadal a tough match in the Rome quarterfinals.

    Maybe Grigor Dimitrov can take one title. Last year, he took a set off Nadal at Monte Carlo, and he defeated Djokovic at Madrid. As soon as we forget about him, he might go on a streak. If we talk too much about his potential, he might not escape the second round. The jury is always out.

    How about a couple of dangerous "serveborgs" in Milos Raonic and John Isner? They have cracked the Top 10 and have shown moderate success on clay in the past. Isner nearly made history in 2011, but he fell short to Nadal in five sets at Roland Garros.

    Can David Ferrer get back to the French Open finals and find a miracle finish? Nobody deserves one career Grand Slam title more than the Spanish Energizer Bunny.

Which WTA Dark Horse Can Win the French Open?

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    It's not looking great for perennial top contenders like Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova. The injuries and attempts to get back to top form have not been easy. Plus, Serena Williams could be in the way. Just a guess.

    Maybe this is the time for Agnieszka Radwanska to win her first Grand Slam title. She has the patience and wonderful groundstrokes to do the job if everything goes her way.

    Or clay-court specialist Sara Errani might renew her joy on clay. She was a semifinalist in 2013 and would love to complete two more matches. It would be her career dream. But compatriot Flavia Pennetta might be the hotter player of the moment to make a better run.

    How about Simona Halep? The rising Romanian has the kind of patience, determination and game to be a French Open champion.

    But the best of the rest might be Dominika Cibulkova. The sturdy, swift baseliner was a semifinalist in 2009, but is now playing with a newfound sense of maturity and will. She seems unafraid to compete with the top players in the WTA and could very well take her game up another notch.

Does Andy Murray Have Clay-Court Surprises Ahead?

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    Andy Murray's best of times in London are a stark contrast to his worst of times in Paris. And if he has read anything from Charles Dickens, he could recognize that a long-shot protagonist might have hope to do serious damage on clay.

    Yes, he was a semifinalist at Roland Garros in 2011, and a two-time quarterfinalist in 2009 and 2012, but he has never won a single title on clay.

    Injuries have sidelined him much the past two years, and he had to ensure that he could be ready for Wimbledon. It turned out to be the right call.

    But just maybe he can get on a roll and win somewhere like quirky Madrid. Could that make him a contender for Roland Garros?

    The odds are not great, but at the least a very good season on the red clay could set him up for another prolific second half of 2014.

Will Stanislas Wawrinka Contend or Fade Away?

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    The conqueror of Australia is a very good clay-court winner. Now that his confidence and winning are at their peak, he would figure to contend for clay-court titles this season. After all, he was runner-up at Madrid last year and now has a victory over Rafael Nadal under his belt.

    If Wawrinka captures the French Open title, he will be the first man to win the year's first two majors since Jim Courier in 1992.

    Or will Wawrinka lose his hunger and edge? Winning a Grand Slam title after many years of toiling on the tour could already be satisfactory enough. Even if this is not so, winning can still change a player that has not made this the usual and expected routine.

    Will he train with even more fire?

    Did he already experience his one shining moment?

    It's critical that his momentum and confidence remain high. Strange as it seems, the clay-court season could very well determine if Ironman Stan contends at future Grand Slam venues.

Can Li Na Pull off the First Half of the Calendar Slam?

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    The last time women's tennis saw a player capture both the Australian and French Opens was in 2001, when Jennifer Capriati pulled off the feat. Prior to that, Monica Seles turned the trick in 1992. Not even Serena Williams has accomplished this.

    Li stands as the favorite to win the French Open if Serena is not at her best. There are certainly other contenders, but Li is playing well, has the game for clay and the confidence to win here again.

    If she does win the first half of the Calendar Slam, she could possibly make a late-year run at the No. 1 ranking.  It would be quite a story, especially for over one billion Chinese supporters.

Is Serena Ready for a Repeat?

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    Clay might be the only thing that can truly slow down Serena Williams. She won the French Open in 2002, lost in the 2003 semifinals and never made it back that far again until winning the title in 2013.

    But Serena might be a better bet now than a decade ago.

    One big reason is that she does not have to go through other WTA heavyweights like Justine Henin, Jennifer Capriati, Kim Clijsters, Amelie Mauresmo and others. That was a field that did not fear Serena the same way the rest of the WTA does now.

    Serena has a mental stranglehold on her current competitors. It's similar to the way NBA star Michael Jordan was late in his career. He and his Chicago Bulls teams dominated with legendary aura as much as talent. Jordan was smarter with his preparation and sense of understanding championship basketball. The other teams were mentally whipped at the important times.

    Serena may not be at her absolute physical peak anymore, but she is smarter with her preparation, execution and problem solving. She is more resilient than ever before and determined to win when the stakes are highest.

    The time to defeat her could more likely be in the early to middle rounds. Give her a final-money match and she will be the one piling all the chips into her bag.

Can Roger Federer Have a Renaissance on Clay?

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    Federer will join the fray on clay at Madrid. Then comes Rome and the French Open.

    He won't be the favorite, but why can't he win the French Open? Consider the following:

    1. Nine straight years of quarterfinals or better show his consistency on clay. All but two years he was at least a semifinalist. He has been to the finals five times and will always cherish 2009.
    2. He doesn't fear playing Djokovic, and beat him in the 2011 semifinals when the Serbian was playing possibly the best tennis of his life.
    3. There have certainly been more unlikely champions at Roland Garros including young Michael Chang, aging Andres Gomez and formerly washed-up champion Andre Agassi. Once upon a time, other mosquitoes such as Gaston Gaudio, Albert Costa and Carlos Moya won surprise titles.
    4. Federer is healthy and playing well. He still has a strong serve, big forehand, slice and variety of shots. His footwork is still quick and energetic. He combines mental toughness and championship acumen. With the right draw and recovery, he could be right there.
    5. House money. Unlike Djokovic, Federer will not face the same pressure to win this title. He can take chances and throw his entire arsenal at the other favorites.

    Of course, he really needs to pray that he does not meet up with Rafael Nadal. But if the Spaniard is ousted early, Federer could be the one stepping back up on the winner's podium.

Will Novak Djokovic Complete His French Open Dream?

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    Monte Carlo, Madrid and Rome would all be nice, and he has won each of these titles before. But none of that will matter unless he wins at Roland Garros.

    This must be his time, right? Yes, Rafael Nadal is still in the way, but how many more years does Djokovic have as well? He will be 27 years old, almost the same age (about 10 months younger) that Federer was in 2009 when the Swiss Maestro capitalized on winning his only French Open title.

    There is undeniably a burden in carrying this desire to win as each year Nadal keeps finding a way to hoist another Musketeers Cup. Djokovic is still playing awesome tennis, but how long will this window stay open? Will the pressure increase because of his obsessive need to win this title?

    Suppose another clay-court phenom comes along in a year or two and pushes Nadal and Djokovic aside.

    What if injuries derail Djokovic?

    Suppose Nadal finds a way to win it again this year? That could be downright discouraging for the Serbian.

    History will one day evaluate much of Djokovic's legacy on his success or failure to capture at least one French Open title.

    Now is the best time to make it happen.

Will Rafael Nadal Hold onto His Clay-Court Empire?

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    There have been challenges to Rafael Nadal's clay-court empire, but he has always responded with dominance. Take a look at the last few years in how he has answered Djokovic at the three clay Masters 1000 tournaments and French Open:

    2011: Novak Djokovic wins Madrid and Rome, but Nadal still comes out ahead by winning Monte Carlo and the French Open.

    2012: Djokovic has four Grand Slam titles in five attempts, and is looking to hold all of them with the French Open title. But Nadal crushes him in the Monte Carlo final, beats him in the Rome final, and holds him off at the French Open in sodden clay over two days.

    2013: Djokovic takes Monte Carlo, but Nadal storms back with titles at Madrid, Rome and the French Open. The King of Clay leaves no doubts.

    At some point, Nadal will not be able to maintain the most dominant run ever on one surface. Nine years of winning is in the books, but this 10th year promises to deliver another big challenge by Djokovic.

    But until somebody truly knocks out Nadal, he is still the King of Clay and the favorite to win Roland Garros.