2011 ATP Clay Court Season: The Big 3 Is Now the Big 2

G PennContributor IApril 5, 2011

KEY BISCAYNE, FL - APRIL 03:  Novak Djokovic of Serbia in action against Rafael Nadal of Spain during the men's singles championship at the Sony Ericsson Open at Crandon Park Tennis Center on April 3, 2011 in Key Biscayne, Florida.  (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

The new-look ATP Tour hierarchy has put a lot of so-called tennis experts in their rightful places...in the corner with their mouths shut.

The end of 2010 turned out to be fool's gold for the "Federer Nation". The Swiss legend ended 2010 on fire, all on the back of a new-look game; which was constructed under the careful watch of new coach Paul Annacone. Things looks to be going well, as Federer reeled off four post-Wimbledon titles, including yet another World Tour Final Championship where he defeated top players Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic and his own personal Freddy Kruger and Rafael Nadal en route to the title.

Oh, how much things can change.

Fast-forward to the present and the reality of Federer's existence on the ATP Tour is obvious. Whether using his old baseline game, or his new net rushing tactics, he simply is no longer good enough to beat the top guys in a big match. This point was driven home earlier in the year in a straight sets loss to Novak Djokovic in the semifinals of the Australian Open (second straight Slam semifinal loss to Djokovic), and even more clearly in a comprehensive semifinal beating at the hands of Nadal this past week in Miami.

These two guys are too young, too fast and too strong for Federer. Roger is still a viable top 10 player, and probably will be as long as he decides to play on tour. But as far as his winning more majors, he needs for the draw to part like the Red Sea in order for him to have a realistic chance.

Novak Djokovic has enjoyed a perfect start to his 2011 campaign. Adding his second career Grand Slam title in Australia this February, he also added a win in Dubai to go with matching Masters 1000 triumphs in Indian Wells and Miami. The impressive thing about Novak's year has been the way he's been crushing guys. His has been a case of utter domination. He's played world No. 1 Rafael Nadal in two Masters 1000 finals and come out victorious both times in tough three-set wins.

These are the kind of character building wins that will propel the Serb to new heights. Djokovic is the best hard-court player on the planet. Contrary to popular thought, Juan Martin Del Potro, even at his best, is no match for Djokovic. Robin Soderling is not a match and neither is Andy Murray.

The only player at the moment able to even challenge Djokovic on a hard court is the world No. 1 Rafael Nadal. He has the firepower and the movement to go shot-for-shot with Djokovic. No one else has that combination. Right now at the peak of his powers, Djokovic boldly enters the clay-court swing. He's always been a very good clay-court player, he's been through to the semifinals of the French Open a few times and he's won in Rome.

The question remains: Can this hard-court invincibility translate to the craftier clay courts? I think that the answer is a mixed bag. Djokovic is just not as good on clay as Nadal is. That being said, I do think that Djokovic is better than everyone else in the world on a clay court. The problem for Djokovic is that on clay, his shots which really have some stick on a hard court lose some of their potency on clay.

Djokovic will have to construct even loner points and deal with a great number of guys who actually have more firepower on clay. The grinding clay-court season will tell us a lot about whether Djokovic's re-birth extends to more than one surface. It will be interesting to see how he responds to the 50th or 60th ranked grinder who makes him play extended rally after extended rally, in the second round of a big tournament. He's beating the same guys 6-2, 6-0 on a hard court. That's what makes the move to clay so difficult. The whole mindset has to change.

Finally, what's up with Rafael Nadal? We can't say that he's had a lackluster 2011. After all, he would have had two Masters 1000 titles on hard courts had it not been for the hottest guy on the tour derailing him in three sets each time. At the same time, this isn't quite the same invincible Nadal we saw dominate three Grand Slams last year.

Nadal is No. 1 by quite a margin, but that margin is built on a number of events which are coming up shortly. Can he defend all of his points? The real answer is, "who knows?" Nadal has never played his best tennis before April. It's almost as if he doesn't really kick things into gear until mid-April, and he keeps his level up there until after Wimbledon.

Nadal actually is playing better tennis going into the clay season than in recent history. He's never been anything but dominant since he came into his own on the clay six years ago. The gulf between himself and the rest of the field hasn't really shrunk. Rarely do you go into a season expecting a player to win every single match he plays on a particular surface. We have come to expect this from Nadal. Anything short of utter domination of the entire field would be headline news.

So as the clay-court season is upon us, we look at the big prize, Roland Garros, and it seems that things appear to be a two-horse race between Nadal and Djokovic. Djokovic was able to sneak out two hard-court Masters wins over Nadal and something tells me that Nadal will likely return the favor over the clay swing.