Madrid, Rome And More: Clay Season Storylines Before Roland Garros
The French Open is its own separate beast.
When the time comes to preview that tournament, we'll be ready to do so. For now however, we have Madrid and Rome to look forward to, as the clay season hits its stride.
Before addressing Madrid – which starts this coming weekend – it’s worth noting that Monte Carlo (ATP) and Stuttgart (WTA) exist on an island, relative to the clay season and the tennis calendar as a whole.
Monte Carlo comes quickly after Miami.
Lots of players who emphasise hardcourt performance either don’t make the trip to Europe, or aren’t in a position to play well if they decide to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. It is notable that Stefanos Tsitsipas won Monte Carlo after having a bad Miami tournament. He didn’t overplay in Miami, and he had something to prove.
Stuttgart is also relatively early in the clay season, but the detail which separates this tournament from Madrid or Rome on the WTA side is that it is an indoor clay event. Conditions are profoundly different. The surface plays in a way which is not comparable to outdoor clay, especially in Rome and then Paris.
It’s true that Madrid is, in its own right, something of an outlier as a clay event since the altitude and milder conditions reward big hitters in a way Rome and Paris don’t.
However, because Madrid leads directly into Rome, it still represents a more central part of the clay season.
Players who want to prepare adequately for Roland Garros want to have a good week in either Madrid or Rome. Madrid is therefore more important than Stuttgart on the WTA Tour.
Monte Carlo offers a more interesting debate – it is more prestigious than Madrid, given its history, but as an indicator for Roland Garros, it’s so far removed from Paris that it probably means less than Madrid.
With that preamble done, let’s move directly to Madrid and Rome, the two tournaments and two weeks which will set the stage for Roland Garros.
Let’s start with the ATP, because after Rafael Nadal defeated Stefanos Tsitsipas in the Barcelona final despite playing well below his best, it’s impossible to ignore that Rafa is the favourite in Paris, meaning that the Madrid-Rome fortnight isn’t a sequence which will dramatically change the Roland Garros conversation at the very top of the ATP Tour.
The intrigue offered by Madrid and Rome in men’s tennis will be a battle to see who are the foremost contenders in Paris after Nadal and Novak Djokovic.
This is going to be fun.
Tsitsipas has probably established himself at the head of this particular pack, but after him, it’s a mad scramble.
Daniil Medvedev has a lot to prove on clay, and he wasn’t able to prove anything in Monte Carlo because he tested positive for COVID-19. He will have a lot to play for in Madrid and Rome.
Dominic Thiem – injured in his loss to Grigor Dimitrov at the Australian Open – seems both physically and mentally worn down. He finally won his first major championship at the U.S. Open, and all that climbing – though entirely worth it – has nevertheless taken a toll.
If Thiem is to be taken seriously for Roland Garros this year, he needs at least one solid result in either Madrid or Rome – at least a quarterfinal and, ideally, a meeting with Nadal or Djokovic to help him measure his game. Thiem's not just going to show up in Paris and do well. He has to build up for France with something noticeable in Spain or Italy. He has made two Roland Garros finals, but he can’t just walk off the street and reintroduce himself. He needs to put in the hard yards again.
Alexander Zverev has also been very quiet since the Australian Open. He's been dealing with a minor elbow injury and needs matches, and at least one or two meetings against elite competition, to feel sufficiently prepared for Paris.
Andrey Rublev, who beat Nadal in Monte Carlo before losing to Tsitsipas in the final, is very much in the mix as a clay contender. Many people who follow men’s tennis would tell you that Rublev is the opponent most ATP pros will want to avoid in a quarterfinal at Roland Garros. If he makes a deep run in either Madrid or Rome, the buzz will build before France.
We could mention many other players of note on the ATP side, but the one we have to include is Jannik Sinner. The 19-year-old Italian who plays with the composure of a veteran, and his heavy, consistent shots lend weight (pun intended) to the idea that he can hang with the big boys. He and Rublev both show the competitive chops of players who aren’t merely hoping to win, but who EXPECT to win. Sinner will be a fan favourite in Rome. How he handles home-nation pressure will be fascinating to watch.
The battle for ATP prominence is known among the top three. How Nos. 4-8 line up heading into Paris is what Madrid and Rome will reshape.
The WTA Tour is the more uncertain tour heading into Madrid and Rome. There is no Rafael Nadal towering over the rest of the field as a clear French Open target.
Late news has emerged: Bianca Andreescu won’t play Madrid. The global tennis community badly wanted to see the Canadian on clay, a surface she has said she loves.
Andreescu wasn’t able to fully compete at each of the last two French Opens, so 2021 is a year in which we hope to see her close to 100% in Paris. Not having Madrid as a lead-in event will hurt, but if she can play Rome and get a few matches under her belt, she could still be prepared for France.
With Andreescu and Serena Williams away from Madrid (both will attempt to play Rome), the focus will fall on Iga Swiatek, the defending Roland Garros champion who didn’t play Stuttgart and will begin her preparation for Paris in Spain. Swiatek destroyed the field last October en route to a major title on red clay, so she will be the headliner in Madrid.
If Swiatek is the headliner, Naomi Osaka is also on the front page.
Osaka is the best player in the world. While she isn’t ranked No. 1 – Ashleigh Barty is – but Osaka plays the best at the biggest tournaments. She has won four majors after her Australian Open championship.
How can Osaka displace Barty for No. 1? Simple: Win on surfaces other than hard-courts. Barty just won Stuttgart on clay and will be a favourite at Wimbledon. Osaka has to rack up points at important non-hardcourt tournaments to crate the 52-week resume No. 1 players achieve. Everyone in tennis is waiting to see when – not if – Osaka puts all the pieces together on clay and grass. Will this be the year? That’s a juicy storyline for the 2021 clay season.
Speaking of Ash Barty, the World No. 1 continues to play like it. Osaka is money at the hardcourt majors, but Barty is the more consistent player over the course of a full year. Clay is not her most natural or preferred surface, but she's a consummate professional. She finds solutions. She plays well when in trouble. She made multiple scoreboard comebacks in Stuttgart.
Barty doesn’t have a lot to prove in Madrid or Rome. Her challenge is the opposite of Osaka’s: rising up in the big events. She has already demonstrated her consistency on tour. Grabbing majors or at least making more major finals is where she needs to go in 2021, especially at Wimbledon.
That said, if Barty continues to do in Madrid and Rome what she has proven she can do elsewhere – post solid results at each tour stop – she will bank more points and fortify her position as No. 1 if Osaka continues to struggle on clay and grass.
Simona Halep is in a similar position to Barty. No one disputes her toughness or consistency. Owning the majors is where she can most fully burnish her credentials.
Halep and Petra Kvitova have both done well in Madrid in recent years. The trick is to successfully carry momentum through the rest of the clay season if they do well in Spain.
Elina Svitolina and Aryna Sabalenka both came close to beating Barty in Stuttgart, but fell short. They are knocking on the door as major title contenders. A Madrid or Rome title might give them the push they need heading into Paris.
Madrid and Rome have lots of storylines. Enjoy the lead-up to Roland Garros!
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