If we had to choose one player who looks better on clay than anyone else right now (except Rafa, obviously) it would have to be Nadal’s fellow Spaniard David Ferrer. Ferrer has at times been a top 10 player in the past and has not been outside of the top 20 since 2005. He obviously looks the most comfortable on clay, where he seems to move best and his shots are the most efficient. This year, in addition to that, Ferrer looks to be playing on a level close to, if not higher than, how he played in 2008 when he reached #4 in the World.
Ferrer’s new high level of play was never more evident than on Friday, where he just barely lost to World #2 Novak Djokovic in three thrilling sets in the quarterfinals in Madrid. Yes, he lost the match. But he showed a level of brilliance and talent against Djokovic (who is playing the best tennis in the world at the moment, though Nadal still looks a little stronger on clay) that we have not seen from him yet in his career. He might still be third-best on clay at the moment, but he has closed the gap tremendously.
Ferrer plays a slightly different style than Nadal on clay. Both of them base their games off of defense and great movement to get to every possible ball. But while Nadal trusts his spin to keep his opponents off balance and waits for any tiny opening to pounce and take control of a point, Ferrer works in a different way. His defense is constantly attacking at the same time. Ferrer plays defensive tennis like a game of chess. He moves his opponent around the court and waits for the moment when his opponent is so far out of position that he can’t possibly get to the next shot. He also loves taking a short ball and hitting an inside-out forehand at a very sharp angle for clean winners or to at least take absolute control of a point.
Of course, we have seen Nadal and Ferrer meet on clay twice this year already. They met in the finals at both Monte Carlo and Barcelona. Nadal won both matches in straight sets. However, neither were comfortable. There were times in both matches where Ferrer was outplaying Nadal. But Ferrer also had stretches where he made a lot of errors and some poor decisions.
That is what is so tough about Nadal. Andy Roddick said it best in an interview, I believe at the Australian Open earlier this year. What makes Federer and Nadal so much better than everyone else is that they play at a consistently high level for entire tournaments. Some players, probably even most of the top 10, can play better tennis than Nadal or Federer for a few games or maybe even a set. The problem is that they can’t stay at such a high level for entire matches. Djokovic is quickly showing that he can do it too. If Ferrer can play consistently at his best for an entire tournament, he has the talent to be unstoppable on clay, even by Rafa.
The other thing Ferrer has to worry about is that he not overexert himself before the French Open this year. Many people point out that Verdasco did it last year, who looked absolutely beat in a fourth-round loss at Roland Garros after deep runs in Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Rome, and Nice. Ferrer is in a similar situation, having reached the finals at Monte Carlo and Barcelona already. Ferrer is also scheduled to play Nice. We have already discussed here what overscheduling could do to Nadal. Ferrer is five years older than Rafa, though he plays a much less physical style and has not had a history of injury. Still, it would be a shame if Ferrer is not at his absolute best when we get to Roland Garros.
Of course, Rafa is rarely at 100% at Roland Garros since the clay court season takes so much out of him. This alone should be Ferrer’s biggest help in beating him. Then all he will have to do is play at his best for a few other matches to beat Djokovic, Federer, or whichever other top players he meets along the way. Basically, Ferrer has the talent and clay court ability to win Roland Garros. He just needs to play with the consistency of a champion to finally become a Grand Slam champion.
What to Watch this Week:
Well, we are finally down to the last week before the rankings will determine the seeds for the French Open. There are still two more tournaments (at the same time) between Rome and Roland Garros, but since the draw for Roland Garros is made before the tournaments in Nice and Dusseldorf end, the rankings that come out after Rome will be used.
Novak Djokovic has clinched the #2 spot at Roland Garros with his run to the quarterfinals here in Madrid. He has not yet lost a match this year and just passed Ivan Lendl for the second longest winning streak to start a season. He is 31-0 to start the season since since January, second only to John McEnroe’s 39-win streak to start the 1984 season. Of course, that could end when he plays Nadal in the Madrid final tomorrow, but either way that match should be a great one. This will also be the first good indicator for us as to how good Djokovic really is at the moment and if he will be able to move up to World #1.
Djokovic is well within reach of taking #1 from Rafa. All Djokovic needs is for Nadal to slip up at either Roland Garros or Wimbledon and he is close enough to move ahead anyway. Since Nadal won both tournaments last year, he cannot gain any points. If Djokovic will reach the finals in Rome, Roland Garros, and Wimbledon, he could move within 1000 points of #1 even if Rafa defends all three titles. No one has been that close to Nadal since Wimbledon of last year. Djokovic still looks very strong on clay, but is nowhere near as dominant as he was on the hard courts earlier this year. The French Open final may be out of reach, so Djoker will most likely need to either win Wimbledon or wait for the U.S. hard court season to take #1.
This has shuffled Federer back to the #3 spot, but he has a large enough lead there that he should not worry about being caught for quite a while. He did not reach even the semifinals in either Roland Garros or Wimbledon last year, so he is very far from out of the race for #1. And remember, he just needs to become World #1 for one more week to tie Pete Sampras’s all-time record and two more to beat it. He will be losing 600 points next week for his runner-up finish in Madrid last year though (keep in mind that Madrid points from 2010 are coming off after Rome this year). Also, there is that 50-50 possibility now that Federer ends up on Rafa’s half of the Roland Garros draw and not Djokovic’s.
Meanwhile, the battle for #4 stayed pretty stagnant, with Murray reaching the third round at Rome and Soderling reaching the quarters. Murray will have a 640-point lead this week and has 170 more points to defend than Soderling. A 470-point lead means that Soderling needs to reach the final in Rome to even have a mathematical chance. Murray would need to reach the final to clinch #4. If Soderling wins the title then he will be #4 unless Murray reaches the final as well. Whoever is at #4 at the end of this week (after Rome) will be guaranteed not to reach any of the other top 3 (most importantly Rafa) until at least the semifinals. Anyone in the top 13 can still reach the useful #8 spot, but Jurgen Melzer has a pretty good lead there.
Also, the Rome draw has matched up Milos Raonic and Fernando Verdasco in the first round. The pair has already met twice this year, with Raonic winning consecutive matches on hard courts and Verdasco winning their clay match in Estoril by virtue of a Raonic retirement. This is very quickly budding into an intense rivalry, and the two should be great to watch once again.
On the women’s side, Julia Goerges is looking absolutely amazing so far this clay season. She has had moderate success in small and lower-tier tournaments in her career but came out of nowhere two weeks ago. Not only is she beating very good players, she is destroying them. She made World #1 Caroline Wozniacki look mediocre in the Stuttgart final last week. Fans are already comparing Goerges to Steffi Graf. She did just lose to Victoria Azarenka in the Madrid semfinals. This could be just a flash in the pan of great tennis; but we may be seeing the next great female clay-courter in the making here.