Even though the European clay court season is still a month and a half away, it would be premature to assume Rafael Nadal will have the ride he had in 2010, when he won Monte-Carlo, Rome, Madrid and Roland Garros.
Don't get me wrong, the King of Clay will still be the favorite when he enters all four events. However, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Juan-Martin Del Potro, Nicolas Almagro and David Ferrer could give the world No. 1 a very hard time.
If we look back to 2009, when Novak Djokovic took on Rafael Nadal in the semifinals of Madrid, we saw the Serb play the match of his life on clay against the Spaniard. The match lasted close to four hours, with last year's US Open champion winning 3-6, 7-6(5), 7-6(9) and saving two match points.
We then know what happened following that epic match. Nadal had knee issues, which forced him to pull out of Wimbledon, while Djokovic was struggling to get back his fitness.
Since then, Djokovic and Nadal have both improved a lot.
Nole just won his third Dubai Championship title, crushing Roger Federer 6-3 in the final, which sends a strong message to the five-time French Open champion. As many observers know, Nadal needs to win matches to gain more and more confidence.
Nadal will be under pressure to defend all of his wins from last year. However, it is true that the Spaniard, whose main goal will be Roland Garros, has been able to deal with such pressure over the past years.
If Djokovic and Nadal should meet prior to the clay court Grand Slam and Nole finds a way to beat Nadal in Monte-Carlo or Madrid, then the Spaniard might start to doubt himself a little bit.
Roger Federer might also have a shot at beating Nadal on clay if he is not at the peak of his form.
Moreover, Juan-Martin Del Potro is little-by-little gaining more and more confidence. The Argentine is one of the few players who could take energy and sets from Rafa.
Elsewhere, David Ferrer, who beat Nadal in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, will also have a chance to put his fellow countryman under pressure if they should meet—even if the Mallorcan will not be the same man he was in Melbourne.
Don't forget Nicolas Almagro, who played three successive finals in South America, winning two and losing one by the smallest margin to David Ferrer in the final of Acapulco.
It will be very interesting to see Rafael Nadal playing at Indian Wells and Miami, since it will give us ideas as to where his level of play is at. If the Spaniard should win one of the two, then his confidence will be at the level it was last year and will be almost unstoppable.
However, if Nadal should lose earlier than the semifinals of both Masters 1000 events, then there will be more questions rising, even if Indian Wells and Miami are not played on the same surface as Monte-Carlo, Madrid and Rome.
In any case, if some of you like clay court tennis, don't miss the upcoming European season, because it will be one of the best ever.