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Tennis: return of Nadal, level of Djokovic… Five questions before the start of the clay court season

Slides, rackets clicking against sneakers and long rallies.

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Tennis: return of Nadal, level of Djokovic… Five questions before the start of the clay court season

Slides, rackets clicking against sneakers and long rallies. The clay court tennis season is launched, the day after the Masters 1000 in Miami which closed the first chapter on hard court. With spring comes the traditional harvest of tournaments on ocher: Monte-Carlo, Barcelona, ​​Madrid, Rome, and of course Roland-Garros (May 26-June 9), second Grand Slam of the season.

Can Rafael Nadal hope for results on his favorite surface? Will Novak Djokovic turn things around after his subpar start to the season? What competition for Iga Swiatek? Le Figaro deciphers the challenges of the 2024 clay season. Start of hostilities this week with the ATP 250 in Estoril, before Monte-Carlo this Monday April 8.

While the best players on the circuit were struggling in the United States, first in Indian Wells then in Miami, Rafael Nadal began his preparation on clay, on the sly. There is no doubt that the Majorcan has long marked the dates of tournaments on ocher. It is there, on this favorite surface where he has won so much – 14 titles at Roland-Garros, 12 in Barcelona, ​​11 in Monte-Carlo, 8 in Rome, 4 in Madrid – that the former world No.1 hopes to relive the thrills of yesteryear.

The fact remains that Nadal, 37, has not played since his first comeback attempt in early January, at the Brisbane tournament. Carlos Moya's protégé had certainly displayed an impressive level of play after an absence of almost a year, but he had sinned physically during his defeat in the quarter-finals against Jordan Thompson. Expected in Monte-Carlo (April 8-14), will “Rafa” be able to go the distance to Roland-Garros, his kingdom? And even until the Olympic Games (July 26-August 11), contested at Porte d'Auteuil, which he made a priority objective? Spend a few laps and delight the crowds, why not. Winning titles… If nothing is impossible with Rafael Nadal, there are many unknowns surrounding this return.

An elimination in the semi-final of the Australian Open, of which he was the title holder. A premature exit in the 16th round at Indian Wells. A last minute package in Miami. Novak Djokovic's start to 2024 is far from his standards, particularly on hard, a surface that works well for him. Added to this poor sporting record is the surprise separation with his coach, the Croatian Goran Ivanisevic, after five years of collaboration.

Also readTennis: a big argument behind the break between Djokovic and Ivanisevic?

Vengeful, the world Serbian is attacking the season on ocher with the ambition of winning one or more trophies. Last year, he only won one on the surface: Roland Garros. Under the threat of Jannik Sinner and Carlos Alcaraz for the place of world No.1, “Nole” has points to pick up from Monte-Carlo (8th in 2023), Rome (quarters) and Madrid (forfeit). Even at 36, he will have to be counted on.

A title for Carlos Alcaraz (Indian Wells). Three for Jannik Sinner (Australian Open, Rotterdam, Miami). For both, a stratospheric level of play. The new shock duo of world tennis dominates the start of 2024. In the form of his life at 22, the Italian enters the clay court period full of confidence with only one defeat on his record. But ocher is not his cup of tea. Darren Cahill's protégé has only won one title on the surface, the ATP 250 in Umag in 2022. Last year, he only regressed after a good semi-final in Monte-Carlo : elimination in the quarters in Barcelona, ​​in the 8th in Rome and in the 2nd round at Roland-Garros.

The 20-year-old Spaniard will undoubtedly be much more comfortable on this surface that he likes. The opportunity for him to take back the place of No.2 that Sinner has just taken from him. And why not even aim for the throne? Double title holder in Barcelona and Madrid, the Murcian has points to defend in his native country but should also challenge for the title in Monte-Carlo and Rome, where he has not yet tasted victory. What if this was his year at Roland Garros, a year after his epic but lost semi-final against Djokovic?

Among the ladies, clay has its queen: Iga Swiatek. Like her idol Rafael Nadal, the Pole plays divinely well on the surface. She also won the first title of her career... at Roland-Garros, in 2020. Triple title holder Porte d'Auteuil, victorious twice at the tournaments in Rome and Stuttgart, the world No.1 won the vast majority tournaments that count on earth.

Among the competition, Aryna Sabalenka is the double title holder at the WTA 1000 in Madrid but is going through a difficult period since the suicide of her companion. As for Coco Gauff and Elena Rybakina, they have great references on ocher but seem far from the ease of Iga Swiatek. And after three consecutive eliminations in the first round in Doha, Indian Wells and Miami, the Tunisian Ons Jabeur needs to find good sensations before hoping to worry the Pole.

Among the men, the first two Tricolores in the ATP ranking, Ugo Humbert (14th) and Adrian Mannarino (20th), are not clay court aces. It is the least we can say. The French chances rest rather on the shoulders of Arthur Fils (37th), who won his only career title on this surface. It was at the ATP 250 tournament in Lyon in May 2023. His compatriot Luca Van Assche (94th) is also doing very well on ocher with two titles on the Challenger circuit (Maia in 2022, Sanremo in 2023) and two finals. Finally, Gaël Monfils (45th) has never particularly shone on clay but is capable of epic performances, like his first round of Roland-Garros won at the end of the night in 2023 against the Argentinian Sébastien Baez (3-6 , 6-3, 7-5, 1-6, 7-5).

Among the ladies, Caroline Garcia moved up to 23rd place in the WTA rankings after some good outings on hard court. She knows how to win on clay but has never particularly shone at Roland-Garros, where she remains on three consecutive eliminations in the 2nd round. Behind, the young Clara Burel (44th) and Diane Parry (51st) particularly appreciate the surface for having won their only singles titles there (the WTA 250 in Lausanne in 2021 and 2023 for Burel, the WTA 125 in Montevideo in 2021 and the of Paris in 2023 for Parry). But France will probably have to wait a few more years to see one of its nationals triumph at Porte d'Auteuil.

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