Ever since early April, the clay war has been raging on in the world of tennis. From Casablanca to Belgrade, from Monte-Carlo to Rome, tennis warriors have been fighting it out on the red dirt for glory and pride. As for the past few years, it was predicted that the "king of clay," Rafael Nadal, would once again rule the kingdom of clay.
Only this year, no one saw it coming. A "perfect storm"—named Novak Djokovic.
Besides the French Open—the ultimate prize of the clay season—there are four other significant tournaments in the calendar: the three Masters events in Monte-Carlo, Madrid, Rome, and the only 500 event in Barcelona. Nadal made it to the final in all four events, winning two titles against David Ferrer—but finishing runner-up to Djokovic in the others.
So this year, Djokovic has beaten Nadal four times, all in the finals of Masters events: two on hard-court and two on clay. Will the trend continue if they both make it to the final at Roland Garros?
And what is in store at Roland Garros for Roger Federer, who is yet to overcome Na-No this year? Will Robin Soderling finally be able to come out on top after finishing second-best in the past two French Open finals? Will the Fedal duopoly finally be broken by the Djoker?
Before we take a look at who is hot and who is not heading to Paris, here are a few players who made our top ten list last time but were dropped this time.
Mardy Fish (Last Power Ranking: 4; ATP Ranking: 10)
Mardy Fish was in great form at Miami, advancing all the way to the semifinals before losing to the unbeatable Djokovic. Not long after that, he was able to crack the ATP top ten for the first time in his career. Unfortunately for Fish, actually for all American players, the clay season started right after Miami. Not surprisingly, he enjoyed little success on the red dirt. Though without many points to defend, he was able to retain his No. 10 ranking heading to the French capital.
Juan Martin Del Potro (Last Power Ranking: 5; ATP Ranking: 27)
Del Potro had an impressive season so far, especially considering that he was out of action for much of last season. The tall Argentine has already won two titles this year, including one clay title in Estoril. Unfortunately, he suffered a hip injury before his much anticipated clash with Nadal in Madrid and he subsequently pulled out of Rome as well. His performance at Roland Garros will largely depend on his health and fitness.
Gilles Simon (Last Power Ranking: 8; ATP Ranking: 19)
Gilles Simon had some success on hard-courts this season, winning the Sydney title and making to the quarterfinals at Miami. But he has been struggling on clay so far, winning six matches from five tournaments. This could be partly due to the fact that he missed the entire clay swing last season due to injuries. It is hard to see him have much success at the French Open this year.
Our power rankings try to measure the form of top players based on their recent results. For the list on the women's side, authored by JA Allen, please click here. This season-long series contains contribution from JA Allen, Marianne Bevis and Feng Rong (Ronger Fengerer).
Last Power Ranking: NR; ATP Ranking: 20
Last Four Tournaments: Rome [Quarterfinalist]; Madrid [R32]; Munich [Quarterfinalist]; Monte-Carlo [R16]
Power Ranking Points: 236
Marin Cilic reached the quarterfinals at Rome, losing to Nadal and winning only four games. He also lost to Del Potro at Madrid, winning just three games. Suffice it to say that he needs more consistency to have more success on clay.
Cilic is one of those tall players like Del Potro and Soderling, but he seems to lack the explosiveness of the latter two big-hitters. He also admitted to be extremely nervous for any of his tennis matches, which definitely does not help for long and hard tournaments like Grand Slams. He has found some success at the majors, making to the semifinals at the Australian Open last year and the quarterfinals at the US Open in 2009. He reached the fourth round at the French Open in the past two years, losing to Murray and Soderling respectively.
French Open Expectations: Cilic has not shown enough ability on clay to make a very deep run at Roland Garros. And based on his personality, he is unlikely to catch fire without warning like Soderling often does. Do not expect him to advance beyond the fourth round at the French Open.
Last Power Ranking: NR; ATP Ranking: 21
Last Four Tournaments: Rome [Quarterfinalist]; Madrid [R32]; Munich [Finalist]; Monte-Carlo [R32]
Power Ranking Points: 262
Florian Mayer is a surprise entry of this week's list. The veteran German player has shown some solid clay form, highlighted by a final run at Munich (l. to Nikolay Davydenko) and a quarterfinal showing at Rome (l. to Murray). As an award of his effort, he is currently enjoying a career-high ATP ranking of No. 21.
Mayer is also playing at the Power Horse World Team Cup this week. He has won both of the matches he played, one against Viktor Troicki of Serbia and the other Marcel Granollers from Spain.
Mayer is yet to win his first career title, though he did make to three clay-court finals. He did not play at Roland Garros last year and he has never made to the third round at the French Open.
French Open Expectations: Though enjoying some good form at the moment, it is unlikely that Mayer will make a deep run at the French Open this year. However, look for him to improve on his best result at the French capital.
Last Power Ranking: 9; ATP Ranking: 5
Last Four Tournaments: Rome [Quarterfinalist]; Madrid [Quarterfinalist]; Estoril [Quarterfinalist]; Barcelona [R64]
Power Ranking Points: 290
Robin Soderling made to back-to-back-to-back quarterfinals at Estoril, Madrid and Rome, losing to Juan Martin Del Potro, Federer and Djokovic respectively. He has been playing for the past four weeks and he is also in action this week at the Power Horse World Team Cup. He posted a three-set win against Sam Querrey, but with his Swedish team eventually losing 1-2 against USA. He also defeated Maximo Gonzalez of Argentine in straight sets.
But Soderling is no stranger to such a busy schedule. He also played four consecutive weeks before Roland Garros in the past two years and each year he made the French Open final. Though he was unable to claim the title in each of those two tries, he did post two historically significant victories along the way. His triumph over Nadal was arguably the greatest upset in the French Open history, which was also the first defeat Nadal suffered at Roland Garros. His win against Federer last year ended the Swiss' astonishing streak of 23 consecutive semifinals at grand slams, which also prevent Federer from tying Sampras' record of 286 weeks of being No.1.
French Open Expectations: Soderling has made a name for himself at the French capital in the past two seasons. With the current form of Nadal and Djokovic, it will be hard for him to repeat his final run this year. But the hard-hitting Swede can blow anyone off court on any given day if he is on top of his game. So no one will be happy to see him on the same section of the draw.
Last Power Ranking: 6; ATP Ranking: 7
Last Four Tournaments: Madrid [Quarterfinalist]; Barcelona [Finalist]; Monte-Carlo [Finalist]; Miami [Quarterfinalist]
Power Ranking Points: 315
David Ferrer is probably the third in-form player on clay at this moment, behind of course Djokovic and Nadal, even though he had to pull out of Rome because of fever. He made to consecutive finals in Monte-Carlo and Barcelona, only to be beaten by Nadal each time. He then reached the quarterfinals in Madrid, losing to the red-hot Djokovic. He is playing in Nice this week, having reached the quarterfinals there and scheduled to meet Alexandr Dolgopolov.
Ferrer is known for his clay-court prowess, more than half of his career titles coming from clay tournaments. Yet somewhat surprisingly, his best performance at the French Open are two quarterfinals showings in 2005 and 2008. He lost in the third round to Jurgen Melzer at Roland Garros last year.
French Open Expectations: Ferrer has been always solid but seldom superb in majors. He has made two semifinals at the Grand Slams, including this year's Australian Open. If healthy, he should make to the second week of play at Roland Garros.
Last Power Ranking: 7; ATP Ranking: 6
Last Four Tournaments: Rome [Quarterfinalist]; Madrid [Quarterfinalist]; Monte-Carlo [R16]; Miami [Quarterfinalist]
Power Ranking Points: 318
Tomas Berdych made to back-to-back quarterfinals in the last two clay Masters, solid but not splendid. He actually had worse results last year on clay before the French Open, which however did not prevent him from reaching his first Grand Slam semifinal in Paris. He is playing in Nice this week and is scheduled to play Adrian Mannarino in the second round.
Berdych has always been considered one of the most talented players on tour, yet not until last season after two break-out performances at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, where he reached his first grand slam final, was he able to solidify his top-ten status. He is currently sitting at No. 6 in the world, matching his career-high ranking last October.
French Open Expectations: With Nadal, Djokovic and Murray all showing great clay form and Federer and Soderling, the man who defeated him last year in Paris, also playing solid tennis, it will be hard for the Czech to match his performance at Roland Garros from last year. But he could very well be the top dark horse of the tournament.
Last Power Ranking: 3; ATP Ranking: 3
Last Four Tournaments: Rome [R16]; Madrid [Semifinalist]; Monte-Carlo [Quarterfinalist]; Miami [Semifinalist]
Power Ranking Points: 366
Roger Federer is enduring a four-month title drought, his last title coming at the start of the year in Doha. He is yet to make to a final in Masters so far this year, with two semifinals showing at Indian Wells and Miami, losing out to Djokovic and Nadal respectively.
Despite two disappointing losses to Jurgen Melzer in Monte-Carlo and Richard Gasquet in Rome, the Swiss Maestro remains upbeat about his chances at Roland Garros. After all, he is the only active player besides Nadal who has tasted the glory at the French capital.
After his Grand Slam semifinals streak ended last year by Robin Soderling in Paris, Federer has failed to reach the final at any subsequent Grand Slams, though he does still have the quarterfinals streak alive. The loss against Soderling was painful to swallow as it left Federer one-week shy of tying Pete Sampras' record of 286 weeks as No. 1 of the world.
French Open Expectations: As No. 3 in the world, Federer needs to overcome either the king of clay Nadal or the playing-out-of-his-mind Djokovic in the semifinals, assuming he can make it that far. It should be expected that he will be able to at least keep his quarterfinals streak alive. Also remember that Federer made to the semifinals of the French Open for five consecutive years between 2005 and 2009, a record not even Nadal can claim. So don't count the Slam King out just yet.
Last Power Ranking: 10; ATP Ranking: 14
Last Four Tournaments: Rome [Semifinalist]; Madrid [R64]; Barcelona [R16]; Monte-Carlo [R16]
Power Ranking Points: 394
Richard Gasquet did not enjoy much success on clay before Rome, even losing in the first-round in Madrid against Daniel Gimeno-Traver. But he turned around things nicely in the Italian capital with two impressive wins against Federer and Berdych, before falling to Nadal.
Gasquet won his first career clay tournament at Nice last year, right before French Open. But that win contributed to his fatigue in his first-round encounter against Murray, which he lost after taking the first two sets. So it was not surprising that he is taking the week off this year to be in better physical shape for Paris.
French Open Expectations: As mentioned, Gasquet had the bad luck of running into Murray in the first-round at last year's French Open. With a better seeding this year, and a confidence-boosting performance in Rome, the Frenchman is definitely one of the dark horses at Roland Garros.
Last Power Ranking: NR; ATP Ranking: 4
Last Four Tournaments: Rome [Semifinalist]; Madrid [R16]; Monte-Carlo [Semifinalist]; Miami [R128]
Power Ranking Points: 479
Andy Murray is not know for his play on clay, having never even made to a clay-court final in his career. So it was very surprising that the Scot revealed that he would prefer a slower court at Rome last week. And he was not joking apparently, since he came within two points of defeating Djokovic in the semifinals. He also gave Nadal a run for his money in the semifinals at Monte-Carlo.
Murray suffered a slump of form following his runner-up finish to Djokovic in Melbourne, posting numerous first-round exits. But he seems to have found his game again just in time for the second grand slam of the year. It also appears that the coaching situation and other personal issues are behind him, which should definitely help his chances at Roland Garros.
French Open Expectations: Murray made to the quarterfinals of French Open once in 2009, losing to Fernando Gonzalez. He reached the fourth round last year, beaten by Tomas Berdych. With more experience on clay, and with his excellent counter-punch game style, Murray should be able to make a deep run this year at Roland Garros.
Last Power Ranking: 2; ATP Ranking: 1
Last Four Tournaments: Rome [Finalist]; Madrid [Finalist]; Barcelona [Winner]; Monte-Carlo [Winner]
Power Ranking Points: 1225
Everyone—except a certain Serb—expected Rafael Nadal to once again dominate on the red stuff. And from the early going, everything went exactly as expected. Nadal won his record-setting seventh straight title in Monte-Carlo and a sixth title in Barcelona. Before Barcelona, Nadal said that it is very important to win that tournament to keep his No. 1 ranking. We all know why that is now. Without the Barcelona title, Nadal would have entered the French Open as the No. 2 seed behind Djokovic.
With 2000 points to defend at Roland Garros, Nadal has to win his sixth French Open title to retain his No. 1 ranking, assuming Djokovic falls before the final. Last year, Nadal needed a win and a quarterfinal exit by Federer for the No. 1 spot and that was exactly what happened. Will lady luck again on the Spaniard's side this year?
French Open Expectations: Nadal's biggest concern is not Djokovic at the moment, but his fitness. He has played more tennis in the past few weeks than any other player on tour. He also had a fever scare at the start of Rome. Will he suffer another burn-out as he did in 2008? Though he lost to Djokovic in two straight clay finals, he is still the top favorite for the French Open title. After all, he has won it five times and Djokovic none.
Last Power Ranking: 1; ATP Ranking: 2
Last Four Tournaments: Rome [Winner]; Madrid [Winner]; Belgrade [Winner]; Miami [Winner]
Power Ranking Points: 1750
The last time we had a player with four straight wins atop the rankings was after last year's French Open, when Rafael Nadal completed the unprecedented "Clay Slam," wining all three clay Masters plus Roland Garros. Though Novak Djokovic won't have the chance to repeat that feat since he skipped Monte-Carlo, he is on an even more astonishing run, having won all seven tournaments he entered this season, including his second Australian Open crown.
To win against Nadal in a final is tough: just ask Roger Federer. To win against Nadal in four straight finals (four Masters finals including two on clay) is surely impossible, especially considering that Nadal is the all-time leader with 14 clay Masters and 19 Masters shields overall.
But that is exactly what Djokovic accomplished during his unbeaten run this year, plus three more victories over Federer on hard-court.
Trailing Nadal by only 405 points for the coveted No. 1 ranking, Djokovic has a golden opportunity to break the Federer-Nadal duopoly since February 2, 2004, when Federer first rose to the top spot. Should Djokovic reach the final at Roland Garros, he will rise to No. 1 even if Nadal wins his sixth French Open crown.
French Open Expectations: Nothing short of his first French Open title will satisfy the Serb, who has forgotten how to lose a tennis match. If he reaches the semifinals, he will equal the 42-0 start John McEnroe had in 1984. Though he has beaten Nadal in the past two clay finals, he still needs to show that he can beat the Spaniard in a five-set match, assuming they both make to the final.