Key Questions as the Clay-Court Season Heats Up
The second Grand Slam of 2015 is just around the corner, and as the big guns get ready to tackle the French Open, it's time to take a look at some of the key questions facing them during the busy clay season.
Against a famous Parisian backdrop, Rafael Nadal will look to defend his Roland Garros crown.
But will he have enough in the locker to emerge smiling come June 7?
Before that, however, he and his challengers will have to do battle at the Italian Open, Monte Carlo, Madrid Open and Barcelona Open.
There are lots of scores to be settled and more than a few intriguing narratives to be discussed, so let's get to it.
Don't forget to have your say in the comments section.
5. Which Young Guns Will Excite Most of All?
Several new stars are slowly but surely starting to emerge as genuine threats to the sport's big names.
But before they steal a Grand Slam crown—which one or two of them eventually will—it's vital they get their game plan ready and study the best way to topple the likes of Nadal and Kei Nishikori on clay.
Taking advantage of the busy season to come will stand them in good stead once Roland Garros takes centre stage. These professionals have youth and energy on their side, so they would do well to embrace the hectic pace of the next few tournaments.
With a few polished performances from Madrid to Rome, they are sure to come on leaps and bounds.
Although it's not a clay-court competition, Indian Wells has already seen Bernard Tomic power past Borna Coric, Thanasi Kokkinakis and David Ferrer, which shows that he has been working hard on perfecting his big-game mentality.
As to who will perform best heading into the season of the sticky stuff, that remains to be seen.
Nonetheless, a lot will be revealed as some the young guns build on the experience they have and start to pull the threads that have already started to show in the big guys' attire.
4. Will Kei Nishikori Finally Win a Slam?
Although some still prefer to class Kei Nishikori as a starlet, he has far too much experience at the top of his game to be considered as such.
At 25 years of age, he really needs to push on with urgency if he intends on capitalising on his tremendous talent.
Otherwise, he could soon become a wasted talent.
According to TennisLive.net, the Japanese sensation enjoyed one of his best years on clay in 2014.
He won 10 and lost only two matches in his second-best year on that particular surface. 2010 was just marginally better, as he enjoyed one more success and one less disappointment.
Clearly, he has better fortune playing on the dusty, orange-crushed sand than he does on grass, carpet or pavement, and with lots of opportunities to prove that point this year, he could go all out and take down the King of Clay, Rafa Nadal.
Last time out, the player affectionately dubbed "Special Kei" had a decent preparation ahead of the Slam in Paris, and he even won the Barcelona Open as well as navigating his way into a showdown with Nadal in Madrid.
Injury barred progress to his becoming the first Japanese performer to win it.
That also stopped him from having any impact at the only clay Slam, but if he can steer clear of injury, his speedy darting around the court, combined with his deadly baseline approach, should see him come close to winning his first major.
3. Can Roger Federer's Busy Schedule Catapult Him to Glory?
The "Federer Express" is chugging along rather smoothly, and he could land a couple of ATP titles in the near future.
In fact, according to the official ATP website, the 33-year-old is searching for his 200th win on clay, something that will most definitely act as inspiration for the veteran Swiss star.
And with the 17-time Slam winner stopping off in Monte Carlo, Madrid and Rome before looking to steal Nadal's thunder, he will have built up a real thrust.
In truth, Federer has been in fine form of late and looks to have rediscovered his groove.
He will have to offer yet more convincing evidence for many to take him seriously once again, but as I outlined in a recent Bleacher Report piece, the clay season provides the world No. 2 the opportunity to make a newfound sense of confidence in his ability count.
From there, he should capitalise on his rejection of a comfortable zone as he goes all out to win wherever he can.
The next few weeks will reveal a lot more to all of us, especially his competitors.
2. Is Serena Williams as Unstoppable as Everyone Thinks?
A powerful serve on clay was once hardly even considered a threat.
One look at Serena Williams' record at Roland Garros might still add weight to that notion (two titles at this Slam is her least amount), but it's still hard to bet against her.
Powerful. Confident. Unstoppable.
Williams seems to always find a way to win matches, fight back against break points and reinvigorate herself.
But with stars like Madison Keys, Samantha Stosur and Garbine Muguruza knocking around, it's hard to dismiss their prospective challenges and say that Williams is without any threats.
Maria Sharapova, too, is on the radar.
After all, she is the reigning champion and managed to win in Stuttgart and Madrid last year. Maybe the Russian is the most feared female star on clay right now.
If the 19-time Slam-winning Williams sister can regain some of her prestige on clay at some of the tournaments on the horizon, she could well steamroll everyone.
However, it's not going to be easy, and she won't be able to rely solely on her impressive serve.
1. Will Nadal Steer Clear of Injury?
Closing in on Guillermo Vilas' clay record of 49 titles, Rafael Nadal is sure to use that as fuel for his assault.
As outlined by CNN, 2015 as been a year of mixed emotions for the master of the powdery shale, as he's experienced some highs and lows. After he lost his first clay-court semi-final in 12 years, there have been signs of a crack in his previously impenetrable armour.
In many people's eyes, the Spaniard has been the best player to step foot on clay and is still widely considered the favourite to win at Roland Garros.
Australian legend Lleyton Hewitt is one such voice who doesn't place too much stock in Nadal's recent struggles. Hewitt believes he can win at Roland Garros yet again, per AsiaOneSports (h/t The Straits Times).
"Nadal is the favourite. I don't care how much he's struggling going into it; with the record he has, he's been nearly impossible to beat at that place. Every Grand Slam is tough to win, but he's won the French Open with ease a lot of times as well."
So, is there any need to panic?
Some seem to think that Nadal will be fine on the day, even if his preparation doesn't go well, but doesn't he need preparation at the likes of Monte Carlo and other tournaments?
Won't it help him in the long run? Considering his struggles with injury and his sporadic complaints about lack of match fitness, Spain's Raging Bull could do with getting a decent run of form under his belt, if only to avoid unexpected muscle strains.
Aside from this, it will also improve his confidence and ease the stress of disjointed results and surprise defeats.